02/14/11-by L.S. Carbonell
The chainsaw gang on the House Budget Committee want to defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to meet their ridiculous campaign promise that they would cut $100 billion from the remaining 6½ months of this fiscal year. From a purely political viewpoint, this one stinks like an leaking septic tank. NPR fired Juan Williams. Conservatives love Juan Williams. Let’s punish NPR. That is exactly how this proposal is coming across – political payback.
Maybe that is the motivation behind defunding the CPB. I wouldn’t put it past them. I’m just not sure that defunding it isn’t an idea whose time has come.
The idea behind public broadcasting was somewhere between artistic elitism and condescension. At the time of its creation in 1967, there were three television networks and a handful of local stations in the major cities. The 1950′s are mysteriously called the “Golden Age of Television” because the programming was, through the haze of nostalgia, a blend of high-quality performance shows, exceptional dramas and those “perfect family” sitcoms. Without the nostalgia-haze, there were also those rigged game shows, the endless burlesque variety shows and a fair number of sitcoms that tipped over the edge into offensive ethnic stereotypes.
Programming on network television allegedly slid south, no pun intended, through the 1960′s as ratings, demographics and ad rates replaced quality in the minds of program directors. A review of the top shows of 1965-66 includes the Southern-rural quintet of The Andy Griffith Show, Gomer Pyle, The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Petticoat Junction (Hee Haw was ‘69) along with Batman, Get Smart and Gilligan’s Island. The dramatic programming tended to be repetitive – this is the year of the doctor, the lawyer, the cop, the cowboy, that kind of repetitive. Hit shows didn’t franchise like Law and Order and CSI, they replicated. In the 1958-59 season, twelve of the top 25 shows were westerns. Maybe it was valid to argue that public broadcasting was desperately needed to restore quality to television and to do that, it was necessary to remove it from the deadly program-decision-making influence of Madison Avenue. All Madison Avenue was interested in were the ratings numbers, and the relationship between quality and popularity has always been inverse. (For those too young to know, Madison Avenue in New York City was the home of the advertising industry. It’s where the name Mad Men comes from.)
But somewhere in the background of those “quality” arguments was the condescending one…..that we needed to create a place for quality programming for children, and especially for disadvantaged children. The whisper in the background was the idea that poor parents were likely to park their kids in front of the TV and wouldn’t it be better if they were parked in front of educational TV instead of Hong Kong Phooey. The biggest difference between children’s shows in the 1950′s and the 1960′s was the death of live action shows in prime time and daily schedules, shows like Kukla, Fran & Ollie, The Shari Lewis Show, The Lone Ranger, Circus Boy (starred Mickey Dolenz of The Monkees), The Mickey Mouse Club and Rocky Jones, Space Ranger. Sesame Street and The Electric Company did make a difference. Snotty nursery school teachers who didn’t own televisions were left in the dust by their students. Cable had the same effect.
The creation of public broadcasting was a melding of high-brow intellectuals who wanted to watch opera and do-gooders who wanted to use TV to educate children. And the American taxpayer picked up the bill.
The questions now are, do we really need it and do we really need to keep funding it?
Seventy-eight percent of American homes have either cable or satellite. Public broadcasting is no longer the only place to find quality children’s programming, science programming, dramas, music and British programming, However, it is nearly impossible to find symphony orchestras, operas and Broadway musicals on cable channels, so there is a niche audience for public television’s programming. The niche audience is what cable is all about. It is not necessary anymore for any network to pull in a third of all the viewers in America or a show to pull in half the viewers to get renewed. There are networks for every viewing need. I think I have 166 channels right now. In addition to the five or six broadcast networks, there are dozens of local broadcast stations throughout the country, so even those in the major cities who choose not to have cable have a variety of programming available.
The alternative to public funding for public broadcasting is (scary music please) advertising. This is where the CPB loses my sympathy. PBS and NPR fans are spoiled. They only have to endure pledge weeks a few times a year and don’t have to put up with annoying Cialis bathtubs. Most viewers are tired of PBS stations pulling out all the best shows only for pledge week. Where are those shows between the telethons? Not regularly scheduled, that’s where. Pledge weeks have become shill games.
The long-standing complaint that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting could not find sponsors for their high-brow shows isn’t valid anymore. Niche programming has led to niche advertising. If you’ve ever tried to find a “Talking Elmo” at Christmas time, you know Sesame Street will have no trouble finding sponsors. Want a sponsor for the BritComs? Try British Airways. The Met in New York could redirect some of its advertising budget from The New York Times to PBS. The manufacturers and services are out there that would fit the niche of PBS viewers and the ad contracts can easily include standards for content. It could actually prove to be a win-win situation for live performance in America, letting people who are actually interested in live performances see ads for them on their preferred television network. There is also a well-hidden little entity called Classic Arts Showcase or ARTS. It shows up on some local access channels late at night. Folding it into the PBS family would be awesome. It shows the most amazing videos and kinescopes of old and new performances in the classical, semi-classical, Broadway and older popular music fields. Many PBS stations go off the air at night, so this would be a perfect fit.
As for NPR, suck it up guys. I know it could be hard to find liberal-leaning companies to buy ad time on their news programming, but I’m sure they’ll manage. They should try thinking local. The big corporations may be funding John Boehner’s golf addiction, but small companies, especially in green industries, are very liberal. As for the music programming, the same applies to NPR that applies to PBS – the sponsors are out there. The will just have to work to find them.
Perhaps we should think of this as a trade-off. Cut off the funding for CPB and keep the funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, with a few changes. We need to support our museums and art galleries and regional theaters, our writers and artists and performers. That’s what civilized nations do. We can look back to the Depression and the manner in which the W.P.A. Art, Music, Theater and Writers Project was handled if necessary, to tighten the grant process. It nurtured some of the most influential artists, writers and performers of our times, from Jules Halfant to Rogers and Hammerstein. The N.E.A. should not be allowed to become a victim of partisanship and buying votes for conservatives. It needs to endure if we are to be considered a mature society instead of a bunch of ignoramuses who think The Real Housewives and Jersey Shore are the height of sophistication.
I’ll bet the conservative psychics who just know how all liberals think didn’t see this one coming.