Big Bird is a big topic this week, since Mitt Romney said he would stop funding PBS. Lots of demagoguery going on here, but let’s look at the history and hopefully a better understanding of these things.
American Public Television began in 1961, and was a key component of the National Education Television (NET). The concept was to promote quality television in a time when there were few choices. It also offered television to people in remote places, unlikely to be able to pick up other stations. In its day, it was an invaluable service, as promotion of the arts and education were simply not available on NBC, CBS or ABC – the only stations available. PBS came about in 1970 as the successor of the NET service, and the main arm of PBT. Depending on the program and the affiliate station, government funding usually ranges around 25-40% of funding.
Sesame Street had its beginnings in 1969. I don’t know of anyone who does not like Sesame Street, nor think it is a valuable program.
If government was to pull the plug on APT/PBS, would Big Bird die? Right now, due to revenues from toys and stuffed animals, Sesame Street brings in over $15 million a year. It is self-sustaining. With limited advertisement, Sesame Street could easily last another 40 years.
There are many quality stations that now exist with limited advertisement, demonstrating a new economic model that PBS can adopt (with or without their annoying fund drives) to finance themselves if they wish.
Or, we may see the more popular programming offered on other stations. I’m certain that Nickelodeon or another children’s channel would love to offer Big Bird to their young viewers.
As for other programming, such as opera, ballet, symphony, and John Denver specials, we now have hundreds of channels of programming to provide a venue for these. National Geographic, Discovery Channel and Animal Planet, among others offer us great programs like Planet Earth. There are many quality children’s shows now available on other stations (yes, there is garbage also. Parents will have to be involved). It is very likely that many of those things now offered by PBS will be supported on other stations, simply because there will be sufficient desire by the public to have them. Advertisement can pay for the continued existence of many shows.
For those shows that just do not matter anymore, either because people do not like them, or they are now redundant, why keep them? Jim Lehrer is a decent news anchor, but so are the dozens of others ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, CNN, Headline News, etc. What makes him so special that we need to subsidize him anymore? Let him compete in the market, or retire.
For symphonies or concerts, I have a variety of music stations, the Internet, etc., which provide me with many options.
In 1975, PBS began showing Monty Python’s Flying Circus, a show it obtained from BBC in England. The program was popular and successful. So popular and successful that Monty Python soon outgrew its PBS/BBC roots and made several movies. Many of those actors, such as John Cleese and Terry Gilliam have gone on to become major actors in films like “A Fish Called Wanda.” They did not require government subsidies beyond the first few years to be successful.
And perhaps this should be the case with Big Bird. There was a time when we needed quality educational, children’s, and performance programming. But this is the era of Internet, Video on Demand, and access to your favorite shows on televisions and IPhones. PBS and Sesame Street do not need to be subsidized any longer.
While it may not seem like a lot of money, it is an example of government programs that are no longer needed living forever on the dole. If we want to fix government, we have to be willing to give up our sacred cows. We must let freedom work, which includes the chance that some of the PBS programming may not find a place anymore. But this may also encourage television viewers to actively contact their cable operator and demand better and more quality television offerings.