The conservative pundit George F. Will recently took up public broadcasting
(TV division) in his column, as follows: "Public television is akin to
the body politic's appendix: it is vestigial, purposeless, and occasionally
troublesome. Of the two arguments for it, one is impervious to refutation
and the other refutes itself. The impervious argument is: the small
size of the audiences for most of public television's programming #proves#
how necessary public television is. The big networks gather big audiences
by catering to vulgar cultural tastes, leaving the refined minority an
orphan, because any demand the private market satisfies must be tacky.
The self-refuting argument is: Big Bird.
...But the refined minority, as it sees itself, now has ample television
choices for the rare moments when it is not rereading Proust. And
successes such as "Sesame Street" easily could find private, tax-paying
broadcast entities to sell them."
Wills' arguments are easy to demolish in the case of radio. The
wall-to-wall Clear Channels of the commercial band certainly do not
provide ample choices. We on this List are well aware of the skimpiness
of CM programming, and the near-absence of modern CM programming. Jazz
is very thinly represented on the commercial band, and folkmusic and
world music are not represented AT ALL on commercial stations. As for
the fact that successes (like Sesame Street, or St. Paul Sunday) could
now be marketed commercially, the point is that their initial development
required public broadcasting: Sesame Street was so innovative that no
commercial station would have gone near it.
The fact that government subsidizes innovation which LATER can be exploited
commercially is entirely familiar from such examples as the National
Institutes of Health. I wonder if George F. Will favours eliminating
all public funding of science, and leaving biomedical research to the
private sector, as represented perhaps by Pfizer, TAP Pharmaceuticals,
National Medical Enterprises, Columbia HealthCare, Word.Com, and Enron?
Mr Will ends his column on a note that is simultaneously ominous and
revealing: "...Would [public television] vanish without the 15% of its
revenues it gets from the government? Let's find out." This is ominous
because Mr. Will speaks for a point of view which currently dominates
the US government. Perhaps Kevin Sutton will soon get his wish in regard
to public broadcasting. It is revealing if Will is correct that government
provides only 15% of the revenues of public broadcasting. Perhaps that
explains precisely what is wrong with it.
I mentioned in a previous post that an improved structure for public
broadcasting in the USA could at least be conceived. Here it is. The
structure could be an independent, non-profit corporation like the BBC.
As to its funding, that does not need to come from general tax revenues
at all. Commercial TV and radio stations are each given monopoly use
of a frequency on the broadcast spectrum, and the government in fact
ENFORCES their monopolies. Now, the entire broadcast spectrum is a
public resource, but private broadcasters get to coin money from their
monopoly use of a frequency free of charge. It need not be free of
Department of Gnome Sciences
University of Washington