PBS does two things better than the others

Steven Stark

May 14, 1992|By Steven Stark

WITH ITS federal appropriation at stake, public television is again under fire. In addition to repeating the usual charges of liberal bias, conservative critics such as George Will charge that the emergence of cable television has rendered the Public Broadcasting Service obsolete.

The federal contribution to PBS is quite small -- about $250 million, or less than 20 percent of the overall PBS budget. But the philosophical questions raised by the attack are important: In the new world of "narrowcasting," should taxpayer money be used to fund public television?

The answer is clearly yes -- as long as the programming mix is re-formed. The goal of PBS should always be to offer educational programming not available in the commercial market. The problem is that in the 25 years since Congress passed the Public Broadcasting Act, public television has done too little to adapt its offerings to the changing marketplace and needs of the culture.

When public broadcasting began, of course, there were only three networks and a handful of independent stations. Since network television offered such little diversity, PBS could meet its mandate to offer alternatives to commercial television by running almost anything serious that wasn't a news show, a sitcom or a police drama.

It may be true that featuring British miniseries, cooking or repair shows and concerts by washed-up veterans of the '60s was hardly the best use of that mandate. But it could hardly be argued that those shows were available elsewhere.

Since the rise of cable, however, television has become more diverse. Advertisers can now make money sponsoring shows that appeal to small but well-heeled audiences of the kind traditionally attracted to PBS. Cable outlets such as the Arts & Entertainment network, Discovery and the Learning Channel routinely offer the type of educational and upper-crust programming for which PBS became famous.

From that, some conservatives have concluded the market should now rule. But despite the rise of cable, there are still two major areas where commercial broadcasting falls short.

One is documentaries. Once upon a time, the three networks took it as a major civic responsibility to offer serious (and often lowly rated) news documentaries as part of their mission to inform the public. "The Selling of the Pentagon" and "Harvest of Shame" were high points in the history of television.

But documentaries often skewer business -- and those businesses pay television's bills. Because documentaries, by definition, often attack the status quo, they tend to be unpopular with conservatives. Add to that the desire by the networks to make news more profitable, and it's no surprise TV's best documentaries now tend to appear solely on PBS shows such as Frontline" and the Bill Moyers series.

If PBS has a liberal bias, it's largely because documentaries do, too. To which the proper response is: Tough luck for the right wing.

The market also doesn't work in children's programming. For starters, a strong argument can be made that all children need a venue where they can be spared the onslaught of commercials bombarding them everywhere else, even if their parents can't pay for it.

Moreover, while cable has generated diversity, it has produced little in the way of innovative or expanded children's programming. That's because commercial sponsors have come to discover that children aren't very desirable consumers. And even if they were, there's no incentive to create a "Masterpiece Theatre" for children, since there's no upper-crust children's market to tap. Here, too, the market fails.

Don't get me wrong. Some of TV's finest moments (as well as my favorite shows) have come from PBS programs I would

eliminate from federal funding. But it's hard to see why the residents of Peoria should see their taxes go to the "I Claudiuses" of the world, when almost all the viewers of that notable show could pay to watch it.

Under my proposal to target federal money to two program strains, we'd get more documentaries like "The Civil War" and better "Frontlines" we can't get anywhere else. If we lost a few praiseworthy dramas, we'd get a series of new kids' shows like "Sesame Street" and "Carmen Sandiego." If nothing else, that would make my 3-year-old happy and George Will unhappy. Sounds like the perfect solution to me.

Steven Stark is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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