Major Lott's Law violation?

elmo.jpgI wish John Tierney and Jacques Steinberg had supplied more info in their recent New York Times article on PBS. The piece begins with a pretty good lede — “It was no accident that PBS found itself turning to Elmo, the popular Sesame Street character, to lobby on Capitol Hill this week. There were not many options” — but then drops it without explanation. Google and Nexis were of little help.

I wanted the information to test my hypothesis about the default judgment of human-puppet dustups. That is, “Whenever you debate puppets you lose.” We saw this clearly in Newt Gingrich’s then-quixotic attempt to stuff Big Bird and now we see PBS trying to fan the old flames in order to stave off budget cuts or restrictions of spectrum sale or further Republicanization.

The problem is this: Different constituencies want the web of public broadcast stations loosely organized under the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to do different things. Liberals want cutting-edge investigative journalism and documentaries; conservatives want some balance in the political debate and for PBS not to distribute lesbian rabbit cartoons; pledge drive folks want more British sitcoms; corporations want the “good citizenship” stamp that sponsorship confers, but they don’t want to pay as much for it as they once did.

PBS is going to Whitmanesque lengths to accommodate these requests (witness, for instance, Tucker Carlson’s weekly PBS show, which is actually pretty OK) but it probably won’t be enough to secure much more funding from Congress. In response to the pressures of this impossible Mr. Fantastic act, Pat Mitchell, current president of PBS, plans to step down next year.

Tierney and Steinberg report that PBS wants to auction off some of the spectrum rights after the stations have made the leap to high-definition television, but conservatives inside and outside of Congress are skeptical of allowing this. As Tim Graham of the Media Research Center put it, “They want to create an empire that does not have to answer to the Congress or the people.”

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  • ECJ

    Given the proliferation of channels on cable TV, is there really any unfilled market niche that PBS uniquely serves? And if (as I suspect) the answer to this question is “no”, then why exactly does it still exist? Save the money and pull the plug. Profitable shows on PBS will migrate elsewhere. The rest will die. Everybody wins.


  • Joseph LeBlanc

    >>Profitable shows on PBS will migrate elsewhere. The rest will die.<<

    This only feeds the first argument any public broadcasting propoent will throw at you:

    “But, sometimes there are opinions that aren’t profitable. Does that make them invalid? Shouldn’t there be a forum for a diversity of viewpoints, free from the influence of a profit motive?”

  • ECJ

    “But, sometimes there are opinions that aren’t profitable. Does that make them invalid? Shouldn’t there be a forum for a diversity of viewpoints, free from the influence of a profit motive.”

    Unprofitable in this context means “no one is willing to watch.” Therefore validity is not the issue so much as relevence.

    Intellectuals traditionally rail against the Free Market because it devalues their influence. But that frustration is not a reason to provide intellectuals a forum (at government expense) to insert themselves into a public discussion when otherwise the public would pay them no mind. Just because they want to be heard, it does not necessarily follow that they must be heard. Which are we indulging here? The expressed needs of the audience, or the egos of the producers?

    But again I ask what these views might be? What specific program content is provided by PBS that is not also provided by at least one other cable TV channel? I am willing to be convinced, but I can’t think of anything. (I was going to suggest left-wing agitprop, but then I remembered CNN. )


    The thing about CNN was a joke … sorta. :)

  • Stephen A.

    As for Big Bird and his puppet friends, it’s kind of pathetic and juvenile they haul them out every time funding is in danger. And liberals are supposed to be the intellectuals in this society? With tactics like this Elmo stunt, who can make that accusation stick?

    Can someone point to some issues on PBS that other networks won’t touch?

    Lesbianism, for example? I hear there’s a Gay TV network in the works.

    Science programs would go to Discovery and The Learning Channel, shows like Find! and Antique Road Show would go to A&E or HGTV. Where’s the loss here?

    I’m absolutely certain that a “Documentary Network” would spring up to fill the gap for hard-hitting investigative pieces (and I’d even watch some of them, just like I watch some of PBS’s Frontline investigations.) No doubt big corporations would still foot the bill for these shows, whereever they appear.

    Again “If we don’t do it, who will?” has already been answered by the marketplace. And free speech remains intact.

  • Larry Rasczak

    I was going to say that I disagreed with Stephen about a “Documentary Network” springing up to fill the gap for hard-hitting investigative pieces. Then I remembered that all the PBS “investigative” pieces I can recall have been about as fair and unbiased as the “investigations” undertaken by the Michael Moore (or NKVD). Since Farenheit 911 did make more than a few $$$ at the boxoffice I’m guessing that the market can fill the PBS FRONTLINE niche quite well too.

    That being said, Stephen is absolutely right in his assertion that “If we don’t do it, who will?” has already been answered by the marketplace. BBC America has filled the Britcom niche, Discovery Networks AND Animal Planet AND National Geographic Channel AND The Science Channel have taken the lead from PBS on Science Programing. (Can PBS even touch SHARK WEEK in terms of time and attention given a single sicence subject?) As far as History goes PBS is just plain pathetic up against History Channel and History Channel International. Battlefield Britian is good, but like most good PBS shows the only association PBS has with it lies in the fact they are redistributing other people’s work.

    Even more silly is the idea that Elmo, (of “Tickle Me Elmo” fame) Big Bird, and their friends are somehow dependant upon the taxpayer dollar and unable to survive on their own. These puppets have their faces on more toys, clothes, and other pieces of baby support paraphenalia than R2-D2 or Bugs Bunny. The idea they are not economically viable is sillier than the notion that Miami Beach is located at the edge of the Sea of Tranquility.

    Sesame Street’s subject matter is numbers, letters, counting, and the alphabet. Since these basic topics are not about to go out of style anytime soon the show can be safely re-run, and re-re-re-re-run longer than Star Trek or MASH. It is a cash cow franchise greater than any other (with the possible exception of the aforementioned Star Trek).

    If the argument for PBS is that “otherwise ignored intellectuals will be deprived of a voice” then could someone please explain to me what the deeper intelectual meaning of “Are You Being Served?” is? I seem to have missed it’s deeply thought out commentary on how Mankind’s sorrow over the death of God has impacted post-modernist though on the role of Free Trade policy in the new globalized marketplace of the 21 century.

    Pull the plug!