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February 17, 2005
An Anachronism That Only Government Could Save

Two major dailies today note the resignation of PBS president Pat Mitchell and the precarious state of the government-run television service. The New York Times and Los Angeles Times both note the question of relevance for PBS and how difficulties in getting outside resources force it to play politics to stay alive:

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.

Public television is suffering from an identity crisis, executives inside the Public Broadcasting Service and outsiders say, and it goes far deeper than the announcement by Pat Mitchell that she would step down next year as the beleaguered network's president. ...

"The biggest problem we've got is the structure we've got," Alberto Ibarguen, the chairman of PBS and the publisher of The Miami Herald, said in an interview yesterday. "It assumes a lot of government funding, continuing heavy levels of corporate image advertising and no competition. But in the world we're in - the world of increased cable competition, less and less government funding and cutbacks in corporate image advertising - it's a significant problem if that's your business model."

It's about to get even more significant, as the LAT reports. The Bush administration wants to cut public-broadcasting budgets by 25% as part of its overall belt-tightening, as well as its philosophy of private enterprise as a better model than public subsidies. The explosion of television over the past twenty-five years of cable and satellite delivery systems appear to justify that philosophy:

Cable networks such as A&E, Bravo, the History Channel and Nickelodeon, which reach most American TV homes, offer many of the documentaries and children's fare that PBS once had nearly to itself. PBS' average viewer is 58 years old. And the increasingly polarized political climate puts pressure on programming decisions.

One of the main forces for keeping the doors open at PBS is its children's programming, primarily Sesame Street, which can air without commercials on PBS. But does that apply any longer when the main demographic for the service relates more to the AARP than Head Start? I think not.

At one time in American television, there may have been room for public subsidies for specific types of programming with limited commercial value. Broadcasters ate up most of the viewers and competed almost entirely with each other, forcing them to go after mass-market entertainment. However, with literally hundreds of channels and numerous delivery systems available to producers -- not even counting the Internet and broadband -- those excuses have expired. Not only can producers of such fare find an audience, specific distribution channels exist specifically for those purposes. Want to watch history? Flip on the History Channel. Interested in law enforcement? Watch Court TV. Got a hankering for science? The Discovery Channel now comes in several different flavors, each one representing a specialty in the sciences.

Pat Mitchell had the unfortunate timing to be a dinosaur directly after the meteor impact, able to see doom coming and utterly unable to do anything about it. TV has evolved on its own, and the American government should quit playing around with it and stop distorting the market by subsidizing programming that clearly could find audiences without it.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at February 17, 2005 7:36 AM

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» PublicBS and Comsat from PBS Watch
PublicBS finds itself in the same position as COMSAT, no longer needed to provide programming unavailable elsewhere and unable to survive on its own. There are plenty of privately funded left-leaning programming outlets available today. It is time fo... [Read More]

Tracked on February 17, 2005 11:31 AM

» When Facts Don't Matter from Three Way News
The free market model is not ideal for rearing children. In the end, it's not about programming that can find an audience without a few bucks in government support. It's about programming designed to help children grow, not help grow Frito-Lay's bott... [Read More]

Tracked on February 17, 2005 3:28 PM

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