My 16-year-old daughter doesn’t watch much television. When she was much younger, my wife and I, among other parenting millions, obsessed over things like limiting her screen time. We had assumed that too much television (and gaming) would rot her brain, just as TV alone (even in its relatively benign, limited-channel incarnation) had nearly managed to rot the brains of our contemporaries back in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Today, however, we laugh at our primitive attitudes on this front. Both our kids rarely watch television; they never got into gaming. And yet their “screen time” — between all the media they consume on their phones, tablets and computers, their continual communication via social media portals, and just plain ol’ surfing the Web (which includes watching anything they want via Hulu) — is higher than we could ever have imagined. Hell, they’re obliged to indulge in major screen time to simply do their schoolwork.
On those occasions when Clara does indulge in traditional TV, she sits on the couch (with her laptop open) watching a show called “Say Yes to the Dress”, wherein “ordinary” American women of marrying age attempt to choose wedding dresses for their pending nuptials. The show is a trifle — reality TV at its worst/finest, depending on your point of view. But I did happen to notice the other day that “Say Yes” appears on The Learning Channel.
This fact, this irony, is no longer particularly newsworthy — but only because we’ve inured ourselves to the long, steady brow-lowering of the culture in general and television programming specifically. Indeed, it reminded me of a serial news story that is sure to crop up again soon, now that the Republicans have taken control of both houses of Congress.
Every couple years, America’s right wing decries the public funding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the quasi-governmental parent company to the Public Broadcast Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR). It happened during the 2012 election, when Mitt Romney brought it up. Somewhat hilariously, he was promptly shouted down for waging a “War on Big Bird”.
I’m old enough to recall this biannual rite of the political right, but Google the subject and you will find for yourself the steady drumbeat on this subject, from the right, dating back years and years. There was the Big Bird kerfuffle, which followed the Juan Williams affair (whereby this longtime NPR commentator was dismissed for expressing a fear of flying next to Muslims on planes — something I happen to be doing right now, as I fly from Kuala Lumpur to Melbourne). It doesn’t take anything more than an omnibus spending bill to set things in motion: The government cannot do anything so well as the market does it, the right-wingers thunder. So why is the government in the business of creating left-leaning, educational and informational programming?
Pat Buchanan spelled this out, again, in The American Conservative back in 2010 — namely, that America “cannot afford the luxury of providing news and entertainment to a nation with hundreds of cable TV channels and hundreds of AM, FM and satellite radio stations, not to mention scores if not hundreds of nationally syndicated radio programs.”
Buchanan’s implication is that private-sector radio and TV networks alike are already creating programming of comparable scope, quality and educational value. The government cannot possibly do it so well (because government does nothing well). So, why spend public dollars on this redundancy?
This line of argument dates back to the early days of this century when conservative politicians bemoaned the allocation of public money to PBS and NPR. “Look at all the arts and entertainment programming there is on TV today,” they bellowed, citing then-fledgling channels like A&E, Bravo, The History Channel, and The Learning Channel, in a then-emerging cable universe. “Here is the market already meeting these legitimate consumer needs for classy arts, documentary and otherwise. Why do we need PBS?”
Which brings us back to “Say Yes to the Dress” and its home on the so-called Learning Channel.
Have you spun through a typical 24-hour broadcast day on TLC? Hit the Guide function on your remote sometime and give it a whirl. It’s one piece of reality TV schlock after another. Look over at A&E or Bravo: More of the same embarrassing tripe. Flip over to a few of the “kids” channels: worthless reality content (themed for youngsters) sandwiching other mind-numbing programming that could never be considered “educational”, even by Republican senators who, when push comes to shove, are more likely to classify ketchup as a legitimate school-lunch vegetable.
This is not to disparage the glorious free market (which, as we all know, is regulated every which way and has been FOR-EVER). Privately held TV and radio entities have no obligation to produce/broadcast worthwhile arts, educational and documentary programming. Neither does the market give them incentive to do so — as we’ve seen by the slow and steady decline in quality programming on all these once high-minded channels.
This is precisely why we need PBS and NPR. Anyone who listened to Serial, the stunningly good, long-form podcast series from the makers of This American Life, will attest to this. So will anyone who caught “Muscle Shoals”, a documentary produced privately but aired in December (and every Monday night, all year long) on the consistently stellar PBS documentary series, Independent Lens.
As an issue, public funding of the Corporation for Public Broadcast has, in actuality, become something of a canard. Only 10 percent of your typical public TV or radio station budget relies on government grants from CPB. The balance comes from a station’s own local fund-raising, which includes hefty contributions from “corporate underwriters”, who clearly see the value in this sort of quality programming, or they wouldn’t support it. The anti-CPB noise is all political theater.
Still, it remains important to fund the CPB, even at these meager levels — not because we need to prop up left-leaning programming (someone will have to point out to me what it is that’s inherently liberal about “Downton Abbey”, or Judy Woodruff). No, we the people need skin in that game, in the form of public money, because that little bit of government funding keeps everyone’s feet to the fire.
Wanna know what happens when that fire is removed? Go ask Honey Boo-Boo.