Why Public Broadcasting Is Like A Government-Managed Economy

While viewing a fascinating program on PBS’ NOVA right now about “smart machines,” the law of unintended consequences kicked in and “educated” me (although not in the way the PBS tsars had hoped, I’m sure.)

While thoroughly enjoying the program, I thought “Why isn’t NOVA on some commercial channel like Discovery? Certainly there are commercial markets out there for a program like this…” This was coupled with the fact that I had just seen a promo on the network alerting its supporters to “proposed cuts to Federal underwriting of PBS,” and exhorting them to “contact their elected representatives immediately, and let them know how you feel.”

Those two things led me to an epiphany: PBS is the equivalent of a centrally planned economy, in which a small group of elite managers choose and “appoint” winners. When that happens, the laws of capitalism go out the window, and the subsidized settle in and get comfortable. NOVA is good example of this.

Public subsidies usually lead to bad or underperforming ideas like Amtrak, solar energy, windmills and other unsuccessful green energy initiatives… It is only because NOVA and other successful PBS programs are forced to operate with one foot in capitalism that they are fresh and relevant. Because they’re forced to go out and raise money to supplant what they receive from the public dole, they do have some sensitivity to market forces. If a program is crappy (sorry, in PBS-speak that would be “shoddy”) the producers and network can’t sell underwriting sponsorships for it. If a program’s point of view serves too small a segment of the population, it’s likely funding for it will dry up during pledge drives.

But the very fact that a government-subsidized broadcasting network still exists allows program producers who want to avoid getting their hands dirty in the marketplace to go directly to the public teat… which requires tax dollars to fund… which confiscates private capital through taxes… which makes less of it available – often at higher prices – to entrepreneurs who might actually do something innovative if only they had funding. Who knows, it government weren’t directing capital to PBS managers, someone might come along and do for science programming what Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch did for news: take it out of the hands of a controlling few, and turn it over to the free-market many.

Now, I am not a “pure capitalist” who believes the government has NO place in an economy. I believe that sometimes only a government is large enough to kick-start a response to a national emergency or need… (at least that USED to be the case, before GE stood for “Government Everywhere.”)

Who can argue that our country didn’t reap huge benefits from government-driven initiatives like the Manhattan Project… or the race to the Moon… or the constant military research and development that resulted in innovations like the Internet? Those things came along because of pure science research, which IS often the purview of a government (corporations are more interested in APPLIED science, which can turn a buck. Pure science is too slow and laborious for them.)

But, who can argue that once an industry is up and running and in the hands of private entities, government funding is still needed? PBS (and “NOVA,” by extension) came to be because the three purely-commercial networks that existed up until 20 or so years ago had very little interest in “brainy” or upscale programming. To beam educational material into homes required that the UHF spectrum be opened up and hundreds of state-run educational stations and networks be created – by both public and private university systems. It would be an extremely hard sell to convince me that David Sarnoff or even William S. Paley would have eschewed “Mannix” or “The Jetsons” for a program that looked at the adhesive qualities that allow gekkos to climb walls (which is what I’m watching now.)

But while the viewing spectrum has undergone a revolution, our thinking towards it has not. Some of it is because we’re sentimental creatures. After all, who wants to destroy the nest of “Big Bird,” or bring down the curtain on the group that gave us “Masterpiece Theatre?” (Although… coming up with the names of a few big PBS programs made me think – how many other PBS hits can you name? And what would happen to a private entity who had only come up with three or four, or even TEN successful products in its 50-year lifespan? Hmmm….)

But, like a government-managed economy which operates according to the power and influence of legislators and lobbyists, PBS keeps chugging along, shoveling public funds into Thomas the Tank Engine’s firebox. (Ooops… bad choice, there: “Thomas and Friends” originally aired in the U.K. on the ITV network – a commercial TV network set up to provide competition to the government-run BBC. PBS bought the rights for U.S. airings from the non-government network.)

Because these organizations are insulated from the interests of a center-right country, we get programs with liberal learnings like Frontline, or even entire ORGANIZATIONS with a leftist tilt, like NPR. You don’t see a lot of programming like Milton Friedman’s classic Free to Choose series on PBS anymore… not doctrinaire enough for the ruling managers there, I guess.

I propose that – on the 100th anniversary of The Gipper’s birth – the “Reagan Revolution” finally beats down the door of one of the last holdouts – PBS – and tells it that “You’re no longer a special child… go play in the playground like everyone else.”

You can bet I’m going to listen to the PBS promo that urged me to make my feelings known to my elected representatives. Thanks, PBS!