Is Public TV 'a Solution in Search of a Problem'?

GEORGE F. WILL

April 23, 1992|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- Is nothing sacred? Evidently not. Even public television is being questioned by some conservatives who evidently do not understand the importance of being earnest.

Some troglodyte Neanderthal Puritan Yahoo philistine reactionary inquisitorial Victorian barbarian blue-nosed Cromwellian know-nothing Savonarolas -- that is, conservatives, as the public television lobby sees them -- are wondering why taxpayers should give another $1.1 billion to public television.

A good question.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting was born 25 years ago as a final filigree on the Great Society. It already has a quarter of a billion of federal funds for 1992 and another quarter of a billion in 1993. At issue today is a 50 percent increase to $1.1 billion for 1994-96. The caliber of the defense of the CPB can be seen in Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore's crie de coeur: ''How many Senators here have children who have watched 'Sesame Street' and 'Mr. Roger's Neighborhood'?. . . .This is one thing that works in this country. . . .''

How apt: a wealthy legislator in a chamber well-stocked with people like him, calling for subsidies for his children's programming because it ''works,'' whatever that means.

Does Big Bird need a subsidy? He is a product of Children's Television Workshop, a multi-media giant grossing more than $100 million from programming, publications and licensing fees.

The original argument for public television was that over-the-air broadcasting allows only a few competitors who are driven to seek a broad -- and low -- common denominator. That argument has been obviated by technology -- by cable and the onset of ''narrowcasting'' to many small segments of the American audience.

Public television's advocates argue that almost all households can receive it, whereas only 60 percent of households are wired for cable. But leaving aside the continuing spread of cable, a crucial question is: How many people who do not have cable because they cannot afford it are watching public television? Not many. Public television's audience always has been economically and intellectually up-scale.

The original rationale for public television was wonderfully sealed against questioning. It was that government had to subsidize such programming precisely because so few people wanted it. The argument goes like this: If the public were more discerning, there would be no need for government subsidies -- but, then, a discerning public would not object to government subsidies. After all, by definition, a discerning public discerns the merits of government as a provider of services.

The CPB provides 16 percent of the funding for public television stations. But those stations claim 5.2 million voluntary donors. If each would give another $70 a year (less than the average cable subscriber pays for three months of service), they would raise the $1.1 billion without requiring taxpayers to subsidize their entertainment.

Laurence Jarvik of the Heritage Foundation has another idea about what to do with the CPB: Sell it. Mr. Jarvik believes, reasonably, that there are ample cable, broadcast and home video markets for magnificent work like Ken Burns' ''Civil War'' -- series. Therefore private investors could make and syndicate such quality programming. Today, Mr. Jarvik says, public television is ''a solution in search of a problem.''

Walter Goodman of the New York Times asks: ''Is Dr. Jarvik so satisfied with commercial TV that he can see no room for further innovation?'' The answer is: No, but does Mr. Goodman believe that any possibility of ''innovation'' in any sector of society justifies a federal subsidy? If not, what makes television special?

Politically, what is special is public television's audience. For example, WETA, Washington's public station, says its contributors have an average household income of $94,583. They would have $94,513 after sending WETA an extra $70 to keep the Senators' children wholesomely entertained.

WETA's audience would be an advertiser's dream. Indeed it is a dream for those who advertise in WETA's magazine. Thus government is entangled in subsidizing competition against private print as well as broadcasting enterprises.

The public television lobby is, in part, another example of government-as-an-interest group. It is government lobbying itself. It is an effective lobby because it is in most congressional districts -- wherever there are public stations and audiences. Public television audiences are, like the members of the American Medical Association, the National Association of Manufacturers and many other muscular lobbies, largely affluent, educated and articulate.

Public television is a paradigm of America's welfare state gone awry. It is another middle-class -- actually, upper middle-class -- entitlement. If you doubt the entitlement mentality of the public television lobby, hear its indignant rhetoric equating any questioning of their subsidy with censorship. The public television lobby consists disproportionately of people with the zTC financial and educational means to provide their own entertainment, but who have the political competence to bend public power to their private advantage.

Think of it this way: The relationship of CPB spending to affluent America is approximately that of agriculture subsidies to agribusiness.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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