I 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.”