Public (Broadcasting) Enemy Number One

McDonnell takes on funding for PBS, NPR

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
    PBS
    Fun-loving Ernie always seems to get the upperhand on straight-laced Bert, but that hasn't prevented the perennial roommates from remaining best friends for three decades.

    Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, continuing the vigilance that has helped close a multi-billion-dollar deficit, is calling for the elimination of state funding for public broadcasting by the end of the 2013 fiscal year.

    “In these tough economic times, families and businesses are making difficult decisions every day,” McDonnell says. “They are determining what is a luxury and what is a necessity, and budgeting accordingly. Governments must do the same.”

    Though the public broadcasting cuts would save just $6 million, McDonnell argues that every dollar counts, and that state support is no longer needed.

    “Public broadcasting is a wonderful resource, providing quality programming that is cherished by many,” he said Wednesday. “However, in our modern media world there are thousands upon thousands of content providers operating in the free market. They compete with each other, and viewers and listeners have their choice as to what to tune into or turn on. Simply put, it doesn’t make sense to have some stations with the competitive advantage of being funded by taxpayer dollars.”

    He has a point.

    I love PBS -- a half-dozen PBS shows are set to “Season Pass” on our TiVo, and the network’s exceptional children’s programming has been a key component of my sons’ early education. NPR is the default station on my car radio. But should others be paying for my favorite entertainment? Why should the government pay for “Car Talk” and old British sitcoms, but not “American Idol” and, well, new American sitcoms?

    In 1967, when the Public Broadcasting Act was passed, public broadcasting may have been essential. Most Americans had just three networks, all offering generalized programming. Now there are hundreds of channels available, covering a wealth of subjects and offering a wide range of perspectives. Basic cable channels like Noggin now offer quality children’s educational programming of the sort pioneered by PBS.

    But what about the ads? Public broadcasting is no longer as advertising-free as it likes to claim. While once, PBS and NPR just offered brief mentions of “sponsors,” many now get longer ad spots little different than what’s seen on commercial television. NPR has offered “sponsors” targeted advertising just like other channels do.

    And who are the targets?

    An old “West Wing” episode disparaged Republicans for saying that through public broadcasting, the government is “subsidizing television for rich people.” But according to a Mediamark study from a few years back, NPR listeners are 117 percent more likely to have a household income above $150,000 than the average American, and 152 percent more likely to have a home valued at $500,000 or more.

    The PBS data were similar: Viewers were 60 percent more likely to have a household income above $75,000, 98 percent more likely to be a CEO, and nearly four times as likely to have taken an expensive trip abroad in the past year.

    I’m lucky enough to be able to afford to pay for my own entertainment choices. Those who prefer other fare shouldn’t have to do it for me.

    Follow P.J. Orvetti on Twitter at @PJOinDC