Why support public TV?

April 06, 1992

It's bad enough that right-wing critics of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in the U.S. Senate are holding up the agency's funding to protest alleged "liberal bias." Now state lawmakers are jumping on the bandwagon to bash public television. Why, they ask, should strapped state governments fund public television when cable now offers the diversity of viewpoints public television was originally intended to foster?

It's a specious argument but one that resonates in Maryland, where the state Senate recently cut $1 million from Maryland Public Television's budget before 70 percent of the money was restored in a compromise with the House.

That MPT is encountering rough fiscal times in the legislature is ironic, since the station offers a model of what public broadcasting can accomplish. The largest part of MPT's activity is directly related to serving the needs of state residents through its university of the air, which has enabled thousands of Marylanders to earn credits at state colleges and universities. Thousands more have earned high school equivalency diplomas through MPT. What cable operator is going to offer classes in math, history and foreign languages free of charge?

Yes, MPT also broadcasts "Sesame Street" and "Masterpiece Theater." Yes, it is the fourth largest producer of syndicated programming for the Public Broadcasting Service, with top-rated shows like "Wall Street Week" and award-winning documentary series like "Legacy." But those programs basically pay for themselves. Educational broadcasts, by their nature, cannot. Yet they are the programs most directly threatened when the budget ax falls.

Private cable television operators will never duplicate the kind of services offered by public TV. Cable rates are constantly going up, and cable operators are so rapidly expanding pay-per-view offerings that they are outbidding public television for such "highbrow" programs as Pavarotti specials and British dramas. Far from becoming obsolete, public broadcasting is becoming more essential than ever in fulfilling the educational mission neglected by commercial television.

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