The Case Against PBS (and NPR)

The new Republican House Majority is, among other things, trying to cut off all government funding for public broadcasting. I don’t know how exactly how much money is involved, but I believe that in budgetary terms it’s approximately nothing. The reason behind this move is quite transparent — PBS and NPR are perceived as having a liberal bias (as Stephen Colbert says, “the truth has a liberal bias”) and thus, in this time of fiscal emergency, we shouldn’t be spending taxpayer money to subsidize it.

It doesn’t help that NPR does, of course, have a liberal bias. (In fact pretty much all news organizations have a liberal bias because, in general, educated and informed people have a liberal bias.) But let’s stick to the point: NPR does, no question, have a liberal bias — especially in a country where a progressive tax system is considered some kind of communist plot.

No-one, of course, has suggested that the obvious solution to NPR’s liberal bias would be to fully fund it with public money, the way the BBC, say, works. (Of course, the BBC has a liberal bias too, right?) I think proper public broadcasting is sorely needed in the US but (a) it’s never going to happen, and (b) we have many, many bigger fish to fry. So, to quote the Cat in the Hat, so so so…

Speaking as a latte-swilling, compact-fluourescent-lightbulb-installing, Carbon-tax-loving, iPad-browsing, Democrat-voting, Toyota-driving pro-animal-rights liberal-but-the-locals-think-I’m-socialist: I agree with the Republicans on this one.

Government funding of PBS and NPR is nothing more than a subsidy for the rich. How did I reach this conclusion? Scientifically of course!

Exhibit 1: the only way to watch Sesame Street is in High Def.

Sesame Street (which runs at a healthy profit, thanks) isn’t shot in the standard definition “safe area”. In other words, when they’re supposedly teaching your kids to count to 7, if you’re watching Sesame Street on a standard definition TV you can probably only see five and a half things. Leave aside that I’m pretty sure Sesame Street is next-to-useless for teaching kids to count (it used to be useful for other things, but that stuff is harder to measure so it got stripped out).

So for a decent Sesame Street viewing experience I need cable or satellite TV (with a high-def decoder)* and high def TVs. But if I get an el-cheapo cable subscription I can watch Nickelodeon which isn’t adapted to standard def by sticking it against a piece of wood and banging nails through it, and actually has some content.

* Note: correction. You can of course get PBS over-the-air for free on a high-def TV. But almost no-one watches TV this way or is going to switch over to antenna just for PBS, and for time-shifting etc. you need an entire high-def food chain (e.g. high-def DVR).

Our local PBS affiliate basically rotates 5-10 episodes of Sesame Street for months on end, despite having a back-catalog of hundreds of episodes. And bear in mind that the latest episodes of Sesame Street are built out of hopelessly outdated, recycled content. It’s great that my kids are learning about photography in terms of sending film off to get developed. That’s damn useful.

I’m also sick of Sesame Street being sold to me for $20 for a 43 minute DVD full of unskippable ads explaining how great it is that my money is going to education programs in India. I hope all those kids have high def TVs and film cameras.

And, by the way, the best way to watch PBS kids’ shows is Netflix, because most of the corporate sponsorship gets stripped out and you can watch it on demand. (Of course you also realize that a typical run for a PBS kids’ show is 5 episodes, vs. 20+ for a Nick show.)

Exhibit 2: the best NPR experience is XM Satellite Radio.

The only way to listen to NPR without getting week-long fund-raising drives (for those of you not living in the US, these involve huge amounts of advertising along with lengthy and tedious interruptions to scheduled programming) is to subscribe to satellite radio. (I nearly subscribed just for that.)

As an aside: our local public radio station (APR) plays nothing but music from 9am to 3pm, making it useless to me during the day. If I want to listen to music there’s Pandora and iPods. We don’t need radio stations for music any more. I used to donate to APR, but stopped when I switched to listening to a Birmingham station (WBHM, which we barely receive). When APR called me during fund raising, I politely told them I switched stations. When they asked why, I said I didn’t want music all day and they hung up on me.

I love All Things Considered, Fresh Air, This American Life, On Point (which we don’t get here), Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, and a bunch of other NPR shows. But I have no doubt these programs will survive without public funding. I similarly have no doubt that many avid listeners would cheerfully pay for them (e.g. the only complaints about the paid This American Life App are that it sucks as an app), and I’d prefer honest advertising over mealy-mouthed sponsorship statements. (Apparently, “It’s not advertising if there’s no call to action“.)

Exhibit 3: There’s this thing called the Internet. Look into it.

You may recall that PBS and NPR were products of the Johnson administration. TV and Radio were the happening media back then. We didn’t get a network of publicly-funded newspapers. Well, that was then this is now — we don’t need public TV or Radio.

There are arguments that public broadcasting is necessary for local coverage. I suspect that local coverage will work just fine without it. Heck, replace each local public broadcasting affiliate with a Facebook page. Done. I’m really not sure that PBS and NPR shouldn’t just be turned into one big website anyway.

The one big problem left for us city folk (if you generously categorize Tuscaloosa as a city) is what to listen to in the car if you refuse to pay for satellite radio. (A quick check revealed that the amount of money we’re talking about saving is not nearly enough to buy everyone in the US an XM Satellite subscription. Oh well.) The answer is podcasts. Glad I settled that.

As for the folks living in rural [insert state here, I’ll go with Alaska] who don’t have access to broadband — stop voting Republican.