The U.S. House of Representatives, in an act of retribution that is vicious, punitive and crass, voted to eliminate the modest funding provided to public broadcasting through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).
The $430 million in federal funding for public broadcasting is somewhat less than the $500 million purportedly spent by the Pentagon on military bands. Like Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries, the House has ruled that everything must go.
The cut would be another thread pulled out of the tapestry of our national culture. Without public broadcasting, MSNBC and Fox will set the tone for a generation or more; Twitter will set our thought processes. Already dispassionate news is in retreat.
Fortunately, Republican leaders rewrote the House bill because they knew it would never sail in the Senate, where Democrats hold a majority. The cleansed version didn’t whack CPB funding but instead met the goals of deficit hawks by cutting other spending.
Let me state that I produce and host “White House Chronicle,” a Washington talk show that airs on a number of Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) stations. I offer my television show free of charge to all stations. I pay for the program's closed-captioning, and pay PBS to put it on its satellite.
The action of the House will, if anything, benefit independent producers such as myself, Dennis Wholey and Rick Steves. Our product, for which we find the funding, possibly could be more acceptable to the stations than expensive programming like “Frontline,” “Nova” and the Ken Burns' series.
But I must say that PBS programming, already burdened with reruns and resuscitated British comedies, will be the worse for it. Its promise, never fulfilled, will be dashed.
CPB is the creation of Congress for helping fund the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio. NPR, a ratings behemoth, will survive better. It has a loyal following and has proven that there is a market for down-the-middle news programming.
PBS, unlike NPR, has no central programming function, but instead is a loose confederation of television stations that have different owners. Yet PBS does control the “voice” of PBS television. It does this through programs it supports and sends to the stations on what is called the “hard feed.” You know these as the aforementioned “Frontline” and “Nova,” but they also include “The NewsHour,” “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill,” “Charlie Rose,” “Consider This,” and the heirs to “Masterpiece Theater.”
These programs, unlike mine, are fed to the individual stations in a bundle for which the stations pay. They are produced by well-heeled stations like Boston's WGBH-TV, New York's WNET-TV and Washington's WETA-TV.
Some of these PBS programs have been around a long time — and they show it. Television is a cruel medium and it demands innovation, experimentation and retirement. In commercial television, life is short and death is brutal. Even the Sunday-morning programs go through dramatic iterations. Less so PBS programs.
But the more egregious failure of public broadcasting is there isn’t enough fun in it: There are no high-jinks. If “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” had been offered free of charge to PBS, it probably wouldn't have made it to the coveted world of the hard feed, where tedium and quality are dreadfully mixed in the manager’s minds. I'd like to think my program's originating station, WHUT, and WETA, which carries my program on Sunday mornings, would've picked up something so revolutionary. But PBS itself? No.
In the 1950s, the most staid broadcast entity on earth was the BBC. I worked there as a news film scriptwriter. We could show pictures of blood, but not tell people what it was. Hard to believe, huh? But elsewhere in the corporation, things were moving: Brilliant young people were pouring out of Oxford and Cambridge and setting the Thames on fire with programs like “That Was the Week That Was” with David Frost and “Not Only … But Also” with the comedy team of Dudley Moore and Peter Cook. It was explosive, dramatic, exciting, uninhibited television. The best place to be in the evening was in front of your television set.
Maybe the brush with Congress will be good for the managers of PBS, and they'll lift up their skirts a bit, as the BBC – that old matron — did in the 1960s.
Public broadcasting can save itself, but not with “The Lawrence Welk Show” or that tired, old British show, “Are You Being Served?” – For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate