Wednesday, March 16, 2011

On the other hand...

You want an argument about why the government shouldn't be in the business of supporting certain broadcasting outlets, even if they are commercial-free? I'll give you one, and I used to work in public radio.

Philosophically, it's difficult for me to argue that public television and radio deserve such funding. When there were three television channels on my set, an extra choice was welcome. Now that there are dozens and dozens, if I'm willing to pay my cable company for the right to see them all, that function has disappeared. The number of radio stations on the air hasn't increased much over the last few decades, but there are plenty out there. If you throw in satellite radio, though, there are lots more. Those public stations aren't fighting for ad dollars, but they are looking for listeners.

On the other hand ...

I'll keep it simple to start: Have you seen the competition lately?

On radio, listeners who want to hear some sort of long-form, in-depth news coverage have one choice: National Public Radio. Here in Buffalo, one or two stations do some local news in the morning in any depth (depending on the definition), but the rest barely or don't try. For the rest of the day, stations offer a few minutes of headlines in some cases, some local, some just national. And talk shows don't count; most of the hosts are in the entertainment business.

On television, no one is doing what PBS does. The children's programming alone probably is worth the price tag, but it does offer some other alternative shows that are unique.

Way back in the 1980's when I worked in public radio, I thought that advantage might go away. Cable television was cranking up, and I was afraid outlets like Bravo would steal the programming approach of PBS. When I asked the station president about that in a worried tone, he said that he was confident that PBS would continue to carve out a niche.

Now 25 years later, he was right, and my fears were groundless. Every time I turn in Bravo, it seems to be showing a marathon of "The Real Housewives of Omaha," featuring people that are so artificial they could be made of plastic. "American Masters," it isn't.

Besides, cable and satellite television aren't available to everyone. We still have a limited amount of choices over the air, so PBS still offers a clear alternative to those people who only have rabbit ears and a converter box.

Republicans love to throw the "liberal bias" label at public broadcasting, probably to feed the political base more than anything else. I've made this point before here, so I'll shorten it this time -- while media members are a little to the left philosophically than the public at large (we have a bias for action, because inactivity makes for more boring news), there are far fewer chances to slant the news in a particular direction that people think.

That brings us to the controversy surrounding the departure of NPR executive Ron Schiller, caught by Ron O'Keeffe's hidden camera as saying the Tea Party members are seriously racist people. It was a stupid remark by Schiller considering his professional situation, but he did have no input into editorial decision-making. Besides, it's difficult to feel anything but nervous over a filmmaking situation that would be called entrapment in a court case.

And how much money are we talking about here? President Obama has proposed a subsidy of about $450 million to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. That works out to about $1.50 per person per year. I'd pay that for a week of "American Experience" on PBS and "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me" on NPR. A week, not a year. And, I do, since I contribute to the local public broadcasting outlet.

Public broadcasting is always going to be under siege at times because politicians love to threaten funding cuts to gain political capital. It certainly would be nice to come up with a business model to eliminate such subsidies down the road to avoid such pressure. In the meantime, I trust that the Sarah Palins of the world will only make ideological, and not philosophical, arguments about the matter, and thus cloud and not help solve the argument.

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