Thursday, October 4, 2012

In Defense of Big Bird

At last night's debates, Mitt Romney said that despite his affection for Big Bird, he would cut funding for  PBS.  The question becomes, "Should the government fund Big Bird?"

TV didn't have to become a "vast wasteland", as described 50 years ago by Newton Minow, head of the FCC (and this was before Jersey Shore):

"When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.
But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.
You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you'll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it."

And this was said 50 years ago.  TV has become far, far more banal since that time.  But the moronification of television wasn't an inevitability when the technology was invented.  TV, as a technology, is neutral.  It can be used for educational purposes, civic purposes (such as the airing of public meetings), and for socially redeeming purposes.  It is only because the television industry was turned over to the private market and the advertising industry that it has become so horrendous.  

Television has to appeal to the lowest common denominator to vie for advertising dollars.  Your average person isn't an intellectual.  He or she is tired after work and wants to be amused and veg out.  Few people are interested in doing more mental work about serious issues after they get home from work.  And so television programming has become a race to the bottom, all in a mad grab for the almighty dollar.

The point of the the public, through government subsidizing of PBS, is to provide at least one channel that isn't dependent upon advertising and traditional market forces so as to provide content which is of a higher quality and not subject to the lowest common denominator.  That is why high quality programs like Sesame Street, Frontline, the MacNeil/ Lehrer News Hour, and Nova are on public television.  They couldn't survive in the traditional marketplace because they are simply too good.

Folks like Mitt Romney hate public television because they see it as being too liberal.  Because they don't agree with the political views of the program, they want to kill it.  This means bye bye to Big Bird and friends. While PBS would likely survive by virtue of donations from the public, this is beside the point.  

Why shouldn't the public support the arts, literature, and public programming?  After all, the public supposedly owns the airwaves and allows private television channels to make billions of dollars in advertising. Commercial broadcasting has an oligopoly on the market.  Private broadcasters are using the public commons--the airwaves--to make a killing.  The government funding one or two channels reserved for quality programming for the public isn't too much to ask.  It is too much to ask, apparently, for the Republicans, who see PBS as being run by effete, wonkish, Eastern liberals.  We need every channel beaming Jersey Shore, reality TV, and ads for Viagra and Cialis to every home in America, no exceptions.

This is a business run society.  The needs of business go before all else, particulary the public itself, which is considered secondary.  That's the same reason why a door to door used Bible salesman like Mitt Romney is so close to becoming President of the United States.  Instead of despising what he represents--vulture capitalism, outsourcing, selfish greed and feckless ambition, he is damn close to becoming elected.

After public television is wrecked, private power can go after the Internet and make it look more like television.  This battle comes in the form of "Net Neutrality."  If they succeed in that quest, the future of free speech and prosperity hangs in the balance.

God bless America.

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