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Arthur and Elmo Are Not a Rationale for Government Broadcasting

Whenever conservatives have sought to end the gravy train for PBS and NPR, supporters of the government broadcasting networks have an answer that they think ends all argument: Big Bird. The iconic Sesame Street character was trotted out again today along with Arthur the Aardvark, the star of another PBS show, to illustrate how essential the flow of taxpayer dollars to the television and radio networks were to American democracy.

Which is to say, they really had no argument at all.

Back in the 1960s, when there were few television channels to choose from, there might have been an argument for “educational television,” as PBS was generally known. But in an era when the vast majority of Americans have access to literally hundreds of channels of every possible variety of programming, there is no need for Washington to fund a privileged liberal-leaning network. Where once a local PBS station was the only place where a quality kids’ TV show like Sesame Street could be found, there are now a number of such alternatives on basic and premium cable. Indeed, popular shows like Sesame Street and Arthur are successful commercial enterprises on their own and require no subsidization.

Just as important, most local PBS stations no longer devote themselves to the sort of laudable but often boring programming that was the hallmark of the early era of “educational” TV. It’s true that you can find interesting documentaries and quality (usually British) dramas like those of Masterpiece Theater. But the free market has already provided other stations on the cable spectrum that show the same sort of material on a more regular basis. And anyone tuning in to PBS stations ought to ask: What public purpose does it serve to have taxpayers fund Antique Road Show or reruns of The Lawrence Welk Show?

Despite the claim that they are non-commercial (and thus, somehow holier than openly commercial stations), these TV and radio channels already sell advertising in the form of “sponsorship.” If they want to survive, they can sell more of them and compete like any other station.

As for National Public Radio, its liberal political slant is no longer even a matter of much debate, with the embarrassing recent firing of pundit Juan Williams merely being the most egregious example of their blatant bias. While NPR claims to be an essential element of democracy, it is a publicly subsidized version of an animal that the market has already produced: partisan networks such as MSNBC and FOX News.

Unlike most government-sponsored broadcasting companies around the world, neither PBS nor NPR can dominate the airwaves in order to force its agenda down the throats of a captive audience. But both are actually an affront to the spirit of democracy, as they treat one point of view as privileged. America may not have a state religion, but so long as PBS and NPR continue to feed at the public trough, we do have a form of state journalism.

While the House GOP effort to defund these networks will almost certainly fail this year, the effort is a warning that the campaign to end this absurd anomaly has begun in earnest. In an era of 900 television channels on everyone’s TV, it is only a matter of time before state-funded liberal broadcasting is ended once and for all.



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