Killing the Messenger
Over the years, I've gained an appreciation for the value of non-commercial broadcasting. From Big Bird to the Bard, from the NewsHour to Ken Burns' "Baseball," from the mystery of the pyramids to the favorite foods of mountain gorillas - public TV offers programming found nowhere else. And, yes, my travel shows would never see the light of day on commercial television. (For an example of commercial-style travel, drop by the Travel Channel. Their programming is what works in an advertiser-driven environment.)
The U.S. House of Representatives is considering essentially ending the notion of government helping to fund public broadcasting. Critics claim that public broadcasting is expensive, elitist, and leftist - and they don't want government "subsidizing" a minority point of view.
I can understand how a Conservative might point to a few programs and tar all of public broadcasting as leaning to the left. But this misses the big picture. I find public broadcasting to be a good value, educational, and a healthy alternative to advertiser-driven broadcasting. Spending less than half a billion dollars to keep public broadcasting healthy contributes mightily to the fabric of our society in ways we may not even realize.until we've lost it.
There's a misperception that public broadcasting costs taxpayers a lot of money. Our government currently spends $400 million a year on it, or about $1.50 per year per citizen. (We spend three times that amount every year - $1.2 billion - to subsidize sugar farmers!) In fact, 85% of public broadcasting is funded by donations from people like you, and by underwriting from friendly corporations.
But the money the government does contribute provides a stable foundation for keeping community stations financially viable, and for developing lots of quality programming that wouldn't otherwise be produced.
We live in a time when radio, television, and newspapers are increasingly controlled by a few massive corporate conglomerates trying to maximize profits at the expense of quality journalism. More than ever, we need publicly-funded media that will inform the public, ask hard questions, and focus on stories that affect real people, instead of covering Michael Jackson and the runaway bride ad nauseam. I've long feared that someday genuine culture will be killed-off by commercial culture. Now it actually seems to be happening.
Some conservatives charge that public broadcasting is too liberal. They're upset about showing a gay family on a kids' show, and they cite Bill Moyers and his admittedly progressive show "Now," which nips at the heels of big business. It's true that public broadcasting exposes people to diversity, occasionally puts the powers-that-be on the hot seat, and challenges driving forces in our nation today. That's precisely its mission. And that's why we value public broadcasting!
If you're wondering about my financial interest in this... I make no money (zero) directly from my TV shows on public television. (Of course, the shows make me better known, and that indirectly helps me--like just about anyone these days on any kind of TV--sell more books.) I offer my TV shows free to the system, which offers them in turn to subscribing stations. My new public radio show is produced in the same spirit, free to any station. It's through public television that people like Mr. Rogers, Mr. Moyers, Mr. Lehrer, Mr. Burns, and Mr. Steves have been able to share their passions with our communities. For the alternative, simply cruise the rest of the dial.
If you value public broadcasting, let your senators and representatives know your feelings. Public television is just that--public. It's our community voice. And I think it's important to keep a non-commercial voice speaking for people who have no commercial interests. Because time is so short, telephone calls rather than written letters are needed (look up their numbers at www.senate.gov and www.house.gov). People who value public broadcasting and people who value diversity in media believe we are at a dangerous crossroads. If we raise our collective voices right now in favor of public broadcasting, we can make a huge difference. As I say so often during pledge drives, "Make that call."