Yes, you love Big Bird. When the Republicans threatened to cut $200 million from the PBS budget, you wrote so many letters to your representatives that they changed their minds. In polls you always say you want the government to give PBS all the money it can. I get it. You’re good, smart people. Not good or smart enough to actually watch public television, but good and smart enough to vaguely want it to be there, like libraries and churches and democracy in the Middle East.
The reason you don’t watch PBS isn’t just that you’re stupid. It’s that PBS isn’t good. Or even that smart. Sitcoms from Britain are still sitcoms. When I was young, PBS was so Anglophile it actually aired “The Benny Hill Show.” Until I was 12 I assumed that old bald guys trying to molest topless women in fast motion was some kind of Shakespearean pun I was missing.
Is “Clifford the Big Red Dog” as educational as Nickelodeon’s “Blue’s Clues”? Are those cooking shows as good as the Food Network’s? While NBC offers “Meet the Press” and ABC has “This Week,” KCET elevates the political discussion with “The McLaughlin Group,” a show that tricked us into thinking it was smarter than “Crossfire” by paying Al Hirschfeld to draw its cast.
In the 37 years PBS has been around, it has had four big hits -- “Sesame Street,” “Mr. Rogers,” “Barney” and “Teletubbies” -- and two of them are the type of lowbrow, annoying shows that we resent the commercial networks for. It’s as if the only popular shows NBC ever created were “Cheers,” “Hill Street Blues,” “Fear Factor” and “The Monkees.”
Bill Moyers was so unwatchably boring that to prove his show had a liberal bias, the Republican chairman of the Corporation of Public Broadcasting had to pay a guy in Indiana $14,170 just to watch it. I could get someone to check the politics of “Dancing With the Stars” for a Fatburger. The GOP must be even more powerful than we thought if it has the time to worry about an audience the size of Bill Moyers’. That task must be on the same level of the GOP organizational chart as sending party invites to John McCain.
If we got rid of PBS, cable TV would gladly pick up the few good shows. Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel would be in a bidding war for “Sesame Street,” and they’d be willing to produce a lot more episodes than the 26 a year that PBS has squeezed it down to. Same with “Arthur,” “Postcards From Buster” and “Bob the Builder.” CNN and MSNBC would fight for “NewsHour” and “Frontline.”
But the problem isn’t just that in a 300-channel universe, PBS doesn’t crack the top 20. The problem is that it’s another upper-class subsidy, like tax breaks for mortgages, the NEA and Tom DeLay’s vacations.
There is no other station so obviously aimed at rich, well-educated, white people. Should our government be responsible for providing Edith Piaf documentaries, 98-hour histories of jazz and baseball, Broadway shows, discussions between Charlie Rose and Yo-Yo Ma and rich people figuring out how much their antiques are worth? This is a demo that was clamoring for Alan Alda before his gig on “The West Wing.”
Sure, there must be some poor people who don’t have basic cable and really enjoy “Sesame Street” and “Nova.” But for $400 million we could have Big Bird fly to their houses every morning and teach their kids how to count in Spanish.
The idea that market forces cannot produce shows of as high quality as the government is patronizing. We don’t need the government to get Thomas Pynchon to write books or Alexander Payne to direct movies. Besides, if we have to let one medium devolve artistically, I think TV is the way to go.
So let’s untether PBS from our government, freeing up not only the $400 million but the time spent each year arguing about the $400 million. PBS could move to cable and live off money it would get for selling off its broadcast-spectrum space to those new sucker networks that believe low-number channels still mean something in a TiVo world.
Yes, it would mean even more ads than PBS now has. And although ads are annoying, they’re a lot better than pledge drives. At least ads on other networks tell me about new stuff I might want, whereas I already know I don’t like tote bags. Besides, I can’t help but wonder what kind of commercials the Helena Rubenstein Foundation would produce. I’m guessing hot models.