January 3, 2009

Public Broadcasting and the Government: Why the Government Should Stop Funding Televised Media at the Taxpayers Expense

Note: This was for class. Obviously there is much more that could have been talked about, but there is only so many pages allowed.

In 1967, a bill was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The “Public Broadcasting Act” called for the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and called for an allocation of funds to said corporation. The purpose of the CPB was not to become a programming station itself, rather to aid in the production of educational media and provide funding to stations airing non-commercial, educational programming. In his own explanation of the law, President Johnson said, “The Corporation will assist stations and producers who aim for the best in broadcasting good music, in broadcasting exciting plays, and in broadcasting reports on the whole fascinating range of human activity. It will try to prove that what educates can also be exciting.” Soon after, the law was put into action with the creation of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and decades of government funded television began.
The “Public Broadcasting Act” has long been contested, primarily by conservative, republican and libertarian pundits and politicians, while it has maintained strong support from democratic and progressive groups. This is essentially due to the source of revenue for the CPB. Each year, the federal government gives nearly 500 million dollars to the CPB for it to disperse to its numerous benefactors, including PBS (Corporation for Public Broadcasting 41). This money comes from both the budget for the CPB and the Department of Education. The past few years have seen both cuts and restorations to this funding, but appears the issue of where public television should go from here is at a stand-still.
Why should taxpayers continue to support the CPB? There have been many compelling arguments presented suggesting that it is the only source for unbiased media, that it provides the most up to date information on a variety of topics and that if taxpayer funding ceased many popular television shows would fade from society. All of these points, however, are simply untrue. Bias in programming does occur, the dull and outdated format of many shows is difficult for the new generation to swallow and many of PBS’s most popular series could easily compete with their commercial contemporaries. For these reasons, the government should discontinue the public sponsorship of the CPB, using the money for something more current and beneficial instead.
One of the primary reasons that PBS continues to exist is due to the overwhelming belief that it is free from the biases commonly found on networks like CNN and Fox News. However, David Boaz, vice president of the Cato Institute and well known libertarian pundit brings up an overlooked point. In a debate featured on the television and radio program, “Democracy Now,” Boaz debates this subject with Bill Reed, president of a PBS branch in Missouri. Effectively he states that the best bias “is subtle enough that most of your viewers don’t recognize it” (par. 13). While many major network news stations are obvious in their bias, PBS news shows use both subtleties in word choice and phrasing to cloak their own.
One example of bias as it is found on PBS can be seen in an article by Louis Barbash for “Current.” He found in viewing 19 segments about the Iraq war from Bill Moyer’s “Now” that only four segments featured guests that supported the war. In individual segments more air time was given to those against the war, pointing out injuries, deaths and difficulties for the families of the soldiers. Despite reports of good news coming from Iraq, it was broadcast far less frequently (Thomas).
While the idea of an unbiased news network would be a dream for any avid news watcher, it is simply impossible. The bias does not begin with the broadcaster and end with the viewer. News is what we make of it. The journalists who compile information are judging each source based on their own life experiences and knowledge to determine whether it is correct or worthy of sharing. Producers have opinions and influence shows and staff aiming to progress in their careers. Reporters broadcast the stories that have been developed for them using their own style and personality to read the stories. As we watch the news, we use our own beliefs to determine the reliance of various stories.
This use of bias and speech is not a bad thing; in fact, it is protected by the first amendment of our United States Constitution. Each person in this chain is welcome to harbor and project their own opinion. It is important to remember though, that nowhere in the first amendment is the government required to subsidize speech of any sort. In the case of PBS, every citizen in the United States is paying to subsidize an opinion that they may or may not agree with. This is unfair and does not support the spirit of the Bill of Rights.
Another issue involved in the funding of PBS is the fact that its programs are frequently out of date. While the information is current the methods for conveying the information are the same as they have been for many years. Even though some shows have come and gone, the network has remained largely the same since its creation.
When PBS was created, the world of television bared little, if any, resemblance to what Americans now recognize. Dish and digital cable provide many with access to hundreds of channels, while even those with basic cable receive nearly one hundred channels. In 1967, when the CPB was organized, everyone had access to the same three channels. These channels are the major networks that nearly every American who owns a TV set will recognize, today. They were the CBS, NBC and ABC. These channels hosted news, movies (this is still before tapes and VCRs were invented), cartoons and sitcoms. Now, the competition in broadcasting is so hot that networks feature around the clock programming. Back in the 1960s this was not so. Joe DeShon describes nighttime television for these networks:
They were done for the day. Some sleepy engineer hung around to make sure the transmitter was still humming. But the news crew had all gone home by then and all the front office guys had left a long time ago.
So when the last minute of programming was done, it was somebody's job at the TV station to play the Star-Spangled Banner. It was usually a tape of a choir singing - Mormon Tabernacle-style. Or it may have actually been the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. I dunno [sic]. Or it may have been a military band. Whatever. And it was usually accompanied by a film of a waving American flag.
And then there was an awkward silence. A test pattern may have come on for a few minutes. And then a pop. And then snow (DeShone).
Television followed the same schedule as humans. With only three networks there was no need for a 24 hour race to see which network would survive.
This brings the reader to another reason why the CPB was created; to promote media diversity. The CPB would directly create the PBS which would not be subject to commercial entertainment. It would feature the first educational programs to be aired on television that were not related to news programs along with a myriad of programs for children and youth. At the time, PBS was able to complete its task of presenting TV viewers with another option. The documentaries were well compiled and interesting because they were the only ones. Aside from Saturday morning cartoons, PBS lacked any real competition simply because there were no other channels like it. It certainly paved the way for our 300 channel world.
However, being the first in educational programming is not enough. In the 1980s, new channels that would feature educational programming began broadcasting documentaries, and PBS remained largely the same. As our society has changed, the new channels, Discovery, Arts & Entertainment (A&E) and the History Channel, changed with it. Because they were commercial stations they must, or else they would disappear. Knowing this, it is little surprise to understand why PBS has not changed. It relies primarily on government support. The channel will continue to receive the same amount of money no matter how many viewers it has or what type of programming it runs.
One could say that PBS remains special because it sticks to the basics with no extra glam to get in the way of the facts it is presenting. If this is the case, let us look at the difference between and episode of NOVA and any documentary on the Discovery Channel. Consider what makes them the same. They both may give similar information but one is certainly more entertaining. Discovery Channel programs are more appealing because on an individual basis, more skilled work is put into them to make each a success. It is necessary to the survival of the network, but also for the viewer. While both channels will essentially provide the viewer with the same information, NOVA frequently goes for an approach that is too complicated for many viewers to grasp and retain the information, thus failing in providing free information to the masses. Because channels like Discovery, History and A&E need viewers, they package information in a way that is easy to swallow. Thus, the viewer will retain more information. Computer effects are used effectively and not cheaply, dramatizations are edited in true film fashion to create a documentary that even a casual TV viewer can appreciate and learn from.
Because PBS’s programming has stayed the same it has lost the competition with other channels, but children’s programming remains a strong competing force. Despite a surge in children’s educational programming, PBS has continued to claim the hearts of generations of children with its lovable characters. This is because PBS has adapted these shows based on our culture and developments describing how children learn best. This adaptation has made it a worthy opponent of channels like Nickelodeon, the home of Nick Junior, and Disney Channel, with Playhouse Disney as its educational companion. PBS’s shows are on par, and frequently surpass, the shows of these other channels in quality, making it difficult to understand why the network has not strived for the same in adult educational programming.
This issue leads directly into a final question, if these shows are so popular, why must they be supported by taxes? While many would consider PBS shows to be commercial free, before and after shows there are brief commercials for various foods or products. The children who watch these shows are still being told that Juicy Juice is the best juice, or that Alpha-Bits cereal will be better for them. Profits from the sale of products from the shows go to PBS (Donor Frequently Asked Questions, par. 6). Why is it not enough to cover the funding?
Because PBS is using its products to support shows that are not as popular as their shows for children, the revenue generated is not enough to cover the cost of the network. While on a real network, shows will low numbers of viewers would be considered a failure and canceled, PBS continues to run them at the taxpayer’s expense. While some shows, like “Masterpiece” (Formerly “Masterpiece Theater”) generate some wealth from DVD and video sales, most of the programming for adults generates nothing. If these shows were replaced, or even updated, they too could earn revenue and PBS would become a successful competing channel.
What is important to remember, is that if the government were to cut off funding from the CPB, then PBS respectively, shows like “Sesame Street” and “Arthur” would not disappear. These shows are valuable and timeless and the other networks know this. They would most likely find a new home on one of these channels’ children’s programming or PBS itself would be purchased and remodeled to compete effectively with other television channels. Some of these shows are already aired in places other than PBS. Noggin, a channel home to a mishmash of programming for children and youth, features retro episodes of “Sesame Street” and “The Electric Company.” Many of these children’s shows are beloved by more than one generation of fans and are not at all likely to disappear if the government cuts its funding. By allowing these shows to compete in the open market, they will get the recognition they deserve.
When public television broadcasting first began in the late 1960s, it served the purpose of varying the television landscape. Now, investors, network owners and the citizens that watch TV understand the importance of educational broadcasting and the power it has. Educational channels are as popular as ever and increase in number every year. It is no longer necessary for the government to give money to television stations, stunting their growth in the world of competition. 500 million dollars is a lot of money being invested in a cause that has already been won. Americans have nearly endless possibilities in current, up to date television viewing at whatever bias they choose. The American people should not be compelled to support public television any longer, especially with more expensive challenges at hand. It is almost silly for the government to feel the need to provide us with educational experiences when the test of time and a test of one of the largest industries on earth, the television industry, has proven that we instinctively hold this value within us and seek frequently seek education at our leisure. Hence, the government should find a cause more just to give this money too, or better yet consider it a cut in government spending and return the money to the people in the form of a well deserved tax cut.

"Cato vs. PBS: A Debate on Federal Funding of Public Broadcasting." Democracy Now! 12 July 2005. 6 Nov. 2008 http://www.democracynow.org/2005/7/12/cato_vs_pbs_a_debate_on.

"Donor Frequently Asked Questions." Sesame Workshop. 20 Nov. 2008


Johnson, Lyndon B. "Remarks of President Lyndon B. Johnson Upon Signing the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967." Corporation For Public Broadcasting. 23 Nov. 2008

Thomas, Cal. "Evidence of PBS Bias is Clear." Lawrence Journal-World & News. 23 June 2005. 23 Nov. 2008 http://www2.ljworld.com/news/2005/jun/23/oped3/>.

"2007 Annual Report." Corporation For Public Broadcasting. 2007. 24 Nov. 2008 .

"United States Constitution." Cornell University Law School. Legal Information Institute. 23 Nov. 2008 .

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