Often PBS Television comes into the sights of some Republicans for defunding.  This year is no exception.  Already the speeches are being made with various people holding Kermit and Big Bird puppets.  TV commercials are beginning to pop up on shows on PBS.  What disturbs me is why PBS.  I can’t see what’s not to like.

Most people don’t give a rat’s ass about the politics of PBS, if there are any.  Most people just like NOVA, Antiques Road Show, Masterpiece, and American Experience.  There are numerous kids shows, some entertainment and some educational.  At least 2 or 3 generations grew up on shows like  Sesame Street and the Electric Company.  These shows were on the airwaves.  No cable was needed.  Poor kids got some solid education, even if their parents didn’t have cable or if there were no satellite TV. 

American Experience is one of the best documentaries on television.  The presidents series highlights a president’s life and accomplishments, without over-exposure to politics or without straying away from some of the real disturbances during that term of office.  We need to be able to see all sides of history without being beaten over the head with the politics if we are truly to be an educated society.

Some truly great shows have been shown on Public Broadcasting Service.  Ken Burns’ Baseball, The War, and The Civil War, The West, just to name a few, have been featured on PBS.  These documentaries have given us an inside peek at history without censoring us because of controversy. 

Read what Ken Burns has to say about the proposed defunding of PBS, from the Washington Post  on February 27, 2011:

Public broadcasting, a ‘luxury’ we can’t do without

By Ken Burns

Sunday, February 27, 2011

 Like millions of my countrymen, I am profoundly concerned that the debate over government spending, while necessary, has come to threaten the cultural, educational, informational and civilizing influences that help equip us for enlightened citizenship. Suddenly, these are dismissed as “unaffordable luxuries” when in fact we have never needed them more.

In the midst of the Great Depression, our government managed to fund some of the most enduring and memorable documentaries, photographs, art and dramatic plays this country has ever produced. Our need for such cultured and civilizing influences is no less urgent now.

Difficult decisions will have to be made – but not on the back of an infinitesimally small fraction of the deficit that the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and public broadcasting represent. These institutions are in their fifth decade of unmatched service. With minimal funding, PBS manages to produce essential (commercial-free) children’s programming as well as the best science and nature, arts and performance, and public affairs and history programming on the dial – often a stark contrast to superficial, repetitive and mind-numbing programming elsewhere. PBS supplements the schedules of hundreds of other channels. It produces “classrooms of the air” that help stitch together statewide educational activities and helps create cradle-to-grave continuing education services that are particularly appreciated in rural states. Alaska, Oklahoma, Arkansas, West Virginia are among the states that depend on PBS shows daily, belying the canard that this is just programming for the rich and bi-coastal.

Polls consistently show that huge majorities of all Americans support public broadcasting. And false arguments of bias in public broadcasting often cut both ways; members of the Clinton administration bitterly complained to me about criticism they perceived as coming from NPR. PBS is the place that gave William F. Buckley a home for almost 30 years. In an age when nearly everyone selects their media on the basis of their political views, it’s refreshing to have an in-depth option that periodically upsets the powers-that-be in both parties. Our founders would be delighted.

Many say that what can’t survive in the marketplace doesn’t deserve to survive. Not one of my documentaries, produced solely for PBS over the past 30 years, could have been made anywhere but on public broadcasting. Each time a film of mine happens to reach a large audience, I am “invited” to join the marketplace. Each time I patiently explain to my new suitor what I have planned for my next project – an 11-and-a-half-hour history of the Civil War, perhaps, or a 17-hour investigation of the history of jazz, or a 12-hour history of the national parks – I am laughed out of their offices, sent, happily, back to PBS.

The marketplace can be wonderful. Its relentless forces do weed out many unnecessary things, but there are some things the marketplace cannot do. It won’t come to your house at 3 in the morning if it’s on fire, it doesn’t plow the streets in a blizzard and it doesn’t have boots on the ground in Afghanistan. I don’t mean to suggest that PBS or the endowments have a direct role in the defense of our country; no, they help make the country worth defending.

In the late 1980s, I had the honor of meeting President Ronald Reagan at a White House reception. I told him I was a PBS producer working on a history of the Civil War. His eyes twinkled as he recalled watching, as a young boy, parades of aging Union veterans marching down the main street of Dixon, Ill., on the Fourth of July. Then, in almost an admonishment, he spoke to me about the responsibility he saw for a private sector-governmental partnership when it came to public broadcasting and the arts and humanities. (His administration was very supportive of these long-standing institutions.) I told him that nearly a third of my budget for the Civil War series came from a large American corporation, a third from private foundations, and a third from the National Endowment for the Humanities, an agency then led by Lynne Cheney. He smiled and then held me by the shoulders, and his eyes twinkled again. “Good work, he said. “I look forward to seeing your film.”

Today, our funding model remains essentially the same. But proposals to defund CPB and the endowments will put some of the best stuff on the tube and radio out of business. Somewhere, I imagine, the twinkle would be extinguished from Ronald Reagan’s eyes.

The writer is a filmmaker.

 The proposal to defund government support of PBS is nothing new. It has been going on for years. Recent government spending cuts is just an excuse. Let’s talk about issues, not money. What is it that is good about PBS and what do people not like? Is the mark of a civilized society not somewhat about the arts? When we have Olympics and football teams, is there no room for shows on TV that aren’t pock marked with advertising? Can we have shows like Masterpiece Theater and American Experience? How about some of the great music shows like the Doo Whop Concerts, Celtic Woman, various folk artists for some variety? I rather like the non-exposure to Lady Gaga. The Ken Burns documentaries have been extraordinary. Not everyone can afford HBO. Does that mean we are cut off from anything that might be considered ‘the arts?’ In a time when football, hockey, Charlie Sheen and numerous comedies permeate the airwaves, how nice to be able to kick back for an evening of Downton Abby.

Note:  The new Virginia budget cut funding for  public television by 10%.  That seems fair.




82 Thoughts to “Public Broadcasting: A ‘luxury’ we can’t do without”

  1. Elena

    You said:

    1. With the help of government financing, PBS penetrated and then dominated a niche market once served by commerical broadcasters.

    Back this up with facts please. Even if this were true one upon a time ago, which I doubt, it certainly isn’t relevant today. In act, PBS provides a very different niche, an anomoly from my perspective, one that should be nurtured in a free society, not stifled. News hour with Jim Lehrer is some of the best news programming out there.

    Furthermore, my godfather and father, both men I admire and have done much in the public arena are still progressive liberals, not left wingers, but the old fashioned JFK democrats and I am proud of them.

  2. BoyThreeOne

    Citizen Tom,
    What is your definition of “ethical,” since you throw that word around like it’s you very own creation? MoonHowler has answered your question about the ethical rightness of PBS again and again. It’s “ethical” for a society to provide educational resources to its population. You can redefine “ethical” to suit whatever sanctimonious purpose you want, but you can’t impose your narrow-minded definition on other people. We have our own moral sensibilities and are also tax payers.

    Let’s consider your comments:

    You call people you disagree with “‘human parasites’ {who} discard ethical considerations and form alliances.” People who form alliances for what? My church belongs to an alliance of other social service organizations that seek funding to provide services to homeless LGBT youth. We think this is about as ethical as it gets.

    You use blanket statements like “government-financed propaganda” to denigrate public services that others value.

    You redefine words such as “confrontational” to mean whatever will exonerate you and cast someone else as wrong.

    You contradict yourself from paragraph to paragraph, railing against “democracy” in favor of the rights of the minority in a republic, only to lash out at government funding for things “almost no one” wants. What about the rights of “almost no one” in your minority-rules republic? Maybe you don’t consider independent journalism important, but some of us absolutely do and would rank it right up there with defense.

    Your opinions aren’t facts. I would call them pompous. Many comments on this thread involve far more than refuting your position. It isn’t that interesting.

  3. Elena


    You had me at “what is your defintion of “ethical” 🙂

  4. Elena

    The point Moon was making was that your entrance into the discussion demonstrated poor manners and was not condusive to promote productive dialogue.

  5. Elena

    Great point about theft, that is the way I would feel if I had any control of my tax dollars. I would absolutely not one penny going to any oil company.

  6. @Juturna
    You have made some excellent points, Juturna. We shouldn’t have to make choice between PBS and some having a shirt.

    The unpleasantness you described makes me wonder why conservatives always seem to be down on this country other than its mythical pastoral existence in 1776. I think it is pretty neat right now. Sure, it could improve but I do love my country.

  7. e

    pbs is nothing more than a propaganda wing of the democrat party, and don’t deserve a dime from the american taxpayer. let them compete for revenue in the free market like everyone else. obviously they can’t, because no one is interested in their drivel

  8. Old Fashion Liberal


    It’s “ethical” for a society to provide educational resources to its population.

    That is just an unsupported assertion. I think you are assuming the existing system is ethical just because it is the existing system. People use to regard slavery much the same way, and they too refused to consider any other possibility.

    Rather than responding angrily, please give CT’s questions some thought.

    If enough people (those with guns) decide a monarch “represents” society, does that mean that monarch can do whatever he wants? Nonetheless, people have a right to their property?

    Taxation involve taking money from people whether they want to give it up or not. How do we balance individual rights against societal priorities? What is wrong with considering the trade-offs? When does government become the problem instead of the solution? At what point does government threaten subvert our rights instead of protecting our rights?

  9. @Old Fashion Liberal

    Anger? I don’t hear anger in his tone. Why would you assume BTO is angry? Not in the least. Perhaps you consider all opinions that don’t agree with yours angry?

    It all depends on how one defines ‘ethical’ now doesn’t it.

    People also can decide that their government provide services. Frankly, I am tired of some folks who want to do away with many of the things I particularly like about my country–things that are controlled by the government, like national parks, PBS, museums, monuments, etc.

    Now which of those things do you want to remove because it is stealing from you?

  10. George S. Harris

    “To compel a man to furnish funds for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.“ — Thomas Jefferson

    Have you ever noticed how the right wingnuts always drag out some quote from Jefferson to justify their positon? I suppose Citizen Tom doesn’t think owning slaves, fathering children by a slave and then keeping them as slaves isn’t, “sinful and tyrannical.” I guess it all depends on your viewpoint.

    Tried reading CT’s blog but the gag factor was WAY too high for me. Where does he some up with all his allegations. I think I know, but the thought is repulsive.

  11. Censored bybvbl

    I think it’s naive to expect much variety in commercial television. If a theme ( reality show, quiz show, talk show) is popular, it will be repeated ad nauseum in all its varieties until the audience is finally ready to run screaming from the room. And advertisers will back and sell these shows because of the initial popularity.

    PBS has the advantage of being able to offer something to niche markets and to move more quickly to more interesting subjects.

    Even if you totally despise Oliver Stone’s politics, if you watch “South of the Border” and observe the tv news blurbs shown, you’ll notice little difference between CNN’s and Fox’s reporting on the Venezuelan coups (and what they got wrong). A little more in-depth and independent reporting is not a bad thing. I could watch CNN or Fox for three hours and what is “new” could usually be wrapped up in five minutes (probably the average person’s attention span for news). Anyone who wants a more in depth review of a subject will have to go elsewhere (usually PBS or NPR).

  12. e

    and if i want a really in-depth analysis of current events, i can subject myself to a six-hour harangue by hugo chavez or fidel castro. in-depth review is laudable, provided the review is fair and balanced, and not serving a political objective of the programmers.

  13. Old Fashion Liberal


    It all depends on how one defines ‘ethical’ now doesn’t it.

    I am not sure why you want go there. Kind of defeats the whole idea of multiculturalism, but it does sort of support a belief in moral relativism.

    You can make a case. We do easily adopt the moral conventions of our time. That is why people use to accept something we now think abhorrent, slavery, as normal. That is why too many peoples still define those of other tribes, nations, races, and creeds as outsiders. That is why people can murder outsiders without remorse. They have accepted the convention they are not dealing with other human beings.

    So how should we define what is ethical? What is the difference between doing what right and what is wrong?

    In this nation, the United States, we generally have accepted the belief everyone has equality before God, and therefore, deserves equal consideration before the Law. We focus on the rights of individual human beings. That is, we traditionally consider the rights of the individual supreme. Instead of insisting that each individual must serve some ill-defined concept of society, we balance the rights of each individual against the rights of other individuals.

    Why is that ethical? It depend upon what you believe, but I think it reflects our Christian heritage and a belief we share the same moral code — the one our Creator implanted within each of our hearts. I believe w are each ultimately answerable to God, not society. I believe we each have the right practice our own religious beliefs.

  14. Censored bybvbl

    e, and I hope you would be able to spot any propaganda in any of their programs and do the research to refute it. I feel that PBS tries to get a variety of info/programs out there, not just the latest gimmicky show/fad. (Commercial tv offers one of my spouse’s relatives a good life – chauffer-driven trip out of the city to a comfortable home in Westchester thanks to Americans’ lust for reality tv. He laughs all the way to the bank. The dumber the audience, the easier the sell.)

  15. Juturna

    The ‘conservatives” of today and I use that term for those that love use that term about themselves as if it were a club membership – would have been Tories.

  16. Juturna

    I stil think we should first cut aid to other nations. Then come back and take the low hanging fruit if that pleases you. Of course, that is the EASIEST route – low hanging fruit.

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