An Idea Whose Time Has Gone

January 23, 1995|By CAL THOMAS

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- The Public Broadcasting System is battling to remain on taxpayer life support. It has flooded its own airwaves with self-promoting montages of its best programming that conclude with the rhetorical question, ''If PBS doesn't do it, who will?''

None of these spots shows excerpts from any of PBS' most controversial programs, including some that have promoted left-wing and one-sided views on domestic and foreign policy issues. PBS is trying to sell a tragic image -- the immediate death of Barney and Big Bird if the tax-revenue plug is pulled.

When the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, was established in 1967, television was a ''vast wasteland'' with little programming that could be said to benefit culture or intellect. One could argue that it has gotten worse in the ensuing 28 years. But the point about PBS and its federal funding is not its content. The point is whether one television network should receive federal subsidies, especially with the proliferation of commercial cable networks that offer cultural and children's programming at least as good or better than PBS'.

Cable channels now outspend PBS on programming that PBS says is essential to its mission. The Disney Channel spends $120 million a year on children's programming, compared to $36 million at PBS. CNN spends $164 million on news and public affairs; PBS spends $63 million. Other private cable channels -- such as the Discovery Channel, the Learning Channel, Nickelodeon, Bravo, American Movie Classics and Arts & Entertainment -- offer children's programming, documentaries, classical music, even opera. There would be no cultural wasteland if PBS went off the air tomorrow.

PBS programs make a bundle of money for those selling licensed merchandise, only a small percentage of which flows back to PBS. Shouldn't the people cleaning up on the sale of Big Bird and Barney toys, T-shirts and sheets be required to share more of that money with PBS before the taxpayer has to pony up? A new PBS policy requires that the network receive a ''share'' of profits made from selling merchandise related to a program, though this does not apply to the Children's Television Workshop, which produces ''Sesame Street,'' because it predates PBS, and has gross revenues of more than $100 million a year.

PBS also generates millions of dollars of income through privately sponsored programs and commercial sales. Bill Moyers' production company has raised more than $15 million, some of which comes from sales of his videos through PBS Video, which pays a 30 percent royalty to Mr. Moyers and his partners.

The Heritage Foundation's Laurence Jarvik, who has studied PBS funding and programming, says, ''PBS is a money machine that doesn't need federal dollars to survive.''

More than 70 major public television stations now sell national commercial spot advertising, which earns the stations more than $2 million annually. The president of Public Broadcast Marketing, Inc., which sells the advertising, told the show-business trade newspaper Variety that PBS stations could sell $50-$60 million of advertising annually within five years. While PBS has always denied it allows advertising on the network, there is little difference between a 15-second ''underwriting credit'' and a 15-second commercial.

Mr. Jarvik recommends replacing the federal subsidy for PBS (which is estimated to grow to $1 billion by next year if Congress fails to act), with a publicly held stock corporation that would allow commercial advertising. That way, if programmers wanted to produce material trashing traditional values and promoting the supposed joys of a socialist society, they would be subject to the same market forces required of all other commercial programming.

If government funds cannot promote religion, why should they be used to promote a mostly one-dimensional point of view on PBS?

Whether those ideas are good or bad is not the point. PBS can easily survive, even prosper, following a cutoff of federal funding. The network has served its purpose -- and Congress should acknowledge that, give it an award and close the purse strings.

Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.

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