Friday, March 4, 2011

Time to Privatize Public Broadcasting?

Is it Time to Privatize Public Broadcasting?

Newt Gingrich (remember HIM?) has decided to run for President.  And I am sure the Obama Administration couldn't be happier.  Well, they could be, if Sarah Palin was the Republican Nominee - after all, she put Obama in the White House.  Both candidates would be ridiculously easy to beat.

Newt made waves back in the 1980's (before some of you were born, yes, all Republicans are very, very old) by proposing that government support for public television and radio be cut off.  The outcry was heard far and wide - Newt was trying to kill off Big Bird and the rest of the Muppets!  And what would we do without the McNeil-Lehrer news hour?  Stay awake, perhaps?

20 years later, Republicans are making similar proposals, and perhaps this time around, it may make sense.  Why?  Because the nature of public television and radio has changed dramatically - and in fact, television and radio have changed dramatically.  Let me explain.

In the early years of public broadcasting, the idea behind PBS and NPR was to provide an alternative to the "Big 3" television networks, and provide an alternative on radio as well.  Large multimedia companies had most of the airwaves locked up, and much of what you saw on television was merely repetitive or an echo of what was on the other channels.

"Imitation is the sincerest form of television"  - Fred Allen

Broadcasting, as we know it, was a relatively recent invention - and an invention it was.  Radio existed for many years before broadcasting did.   In the early days of Radio, it was like the telephone, where people talked back and forth to each other over the airwaves.  Or perhaps more like the Internet, with everyone listening in.  It was interactive, as each radio set was usually a combination receiver and transmitter.

It took a fellow named David Sarnoff, who founded RCA, to invent the idea of "Broad-casting" - whereby a single powerful transmitter would send radio signals with program content to a multitude of inexpensive, passive receivers.   Large networks could then generate programming, sell ad time, and send signals from coast-to-coast.  And early on, many people decried how this new technology created standardized and poor normative cues for an entire country.

And it is no surprise that the era of modern dictatorships emerged shortly after the invention of broadcasting.  Hitler and Mussolini both used radio extensively, and it is only through broad-casting that you can get an entire nation to believe the same normative cues - and very poor normative cues at that.

In the postwar era, broadcasting became a commercial medium, and instead of marching in lock-step to petty dictators, we marched in lock-step with a new consumerist society.  We were sold soap that would get our laundry clean and wash out that "ring around the collar".  Ancient Chinese Secret, huh?  And of course, television fueled our car economy, by pounding into our heads, night after night, that our sense of self-worth was determined solely by what was parked in our driveways.

Public television and public radio were supposed to be an alternative to all of that.  They would provide a medium whereby the people could go on the air, and create their own content.  And initially, it was pretty much like that.  Local public radio stations played classical or jazz music, and maybe had one or two talk shows (talk shows on radio were a rarity back then, believe it or not!).  Public television had "educational programming" which was pretty boring most of the time.

In the 1970's all of that changed with a new show called "Sesame Street".  I was already a teenager at the time, but the show was fascinating to me, nevertheless.  It was clear that public broadcasting had a hit on its hands.  Between the fast-paced, zero-attention-span cartoons, and the adorable muppets, it was a program you just had to watch, even as an adult.

And slowly, but surely, Sesame Street created a new trend in public broadcasting - the creation of content not locally, but by slick national companies, which would then syndicate their programs, for fairly high fees, to local stations.  Suddenly, the fund drives for local stations were not to pay for the electricity for the transmitter, but to pay for the staggering syndication fees.

Public radio went the same route - albeit more slowly.  Until about 20 years ago, most public radio stations had local announcers and disc jockeys, playing classical music.  But since then, more and more content is not local, but national.  Rather than a local "classical music in the afternoon" we have "Performance Today", a packaged, slick syndicated program that sells classical music the same way Casey Kasem sold top-40 hits.  And of course, we have talk, talk, talk, talk shows - mostly talk shows, mostly left-leaning talk shows.  Leaning?  OK, Leftist. Let's be real, here.  And of course, the news - NPR, the antidote to Fox.

And this new model of public broadcasting was a hit.  Ratings went up and more and more programs became "canned" programs bought from national producers.  And of course, this all meant that more money was on the table.  And this meant that executives at the national organizations made huge amounts of money - millions of dollars.

And to fuel this money machine, the rules had to be changed.  In the past, people called in to "pledge donations" of $20 or so.  But that wasn't going to pay for the next Ken Burns documentary.  So we had sponsorships - little ads for corporate donors or foundations.  And slowly, but surely, the little ads became big ads.  Not on the level of commercial television and radio (which now have nearly 1/3 of every program as ads), but enough to penetrate the mind of the average viewer or listener, particularly through repetition - and the fact that each ad is not crowded out by others.

So you probably know that Morning edition is sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation (thanks Microsoft!) or by "Angie's List" - which I have written about before.

And each year, the ads get a little longer and slicker.  Now they are nearly 15 seconds long, and there may be 2-3 of them at the beginning and end of each program.  And sometimes they even have a little jingle and slogan with them.  We've come a long way from "sponsorships".

And the million-dollar executives at the heads of these organizations are often unaccountable for their actions.  Since there are no "shareholders" of NPR, they can do as they please - fire Bob Edwards or Juan Williams, with little or no accountability.

They have created a de facto commercial television and radio network, without all the messy business of having to appease shareholders or be held accountable.  And they've done it with corporate money, foundation money, your tote-bag money, and a big chunk of government money.

And the people at NPR argue that the amount of government money they receive is trivial.  If so, why are they afraid of a cutoff of funding for public broadcasting?  Simple.  The money sent to the various local stations is returned to networks like NPR in the form of franchising fees.  You can argue that the amount of government money involved is trivial, or you can argue that it should not be cut off.  You can't argue both - one argument negates the other!

So the question remains, today, does it make sense for the government to continue funding this commercial operation?  Is the programming likely to "disappear" if we do not, as the proponents of public broadcasting claim?  Will "Car Talk" go away because we don't fund it through the government?  Haw, Haw, Haw, as "Click and Clack" would say.

I think not, and for several reasons, not the least of which is that all of these programs are already commercial in nature.  After all, as we learn on "Car Talk", "It's what makes a Subaru, a Subaru!"  Public radio could survive on its own - without government money - simply by paying Click and Clack a lot less for their drivel - and firing the overpaid executives at NPR and hiring cheaper replacements.

Moreover, new forms of media are slowly replacing the broadcasting model.  Reception for public radio is so bad where I live that listening to it on the Internet is easier.  And more and more, for music, I listen to Internet radio, where I can hear the "old school" classical announcers and not Fred Childs.  So more and more, NPR is becoming the talky radio station and I listen less and less.

Radio has so many other outlets today - and will have more.  WiFi radio is the next big thing, and pretty soon, you'll be able to interactively listen to whatever you want to, not whatever station comes in, in your area.  Television has already crossed their threshold, with Internet television.  If I want to watch a Ken Burns documentary, I can download it from Netflix.

The compelling need for public broadcasting as a counterweight to "the big 3" networks is evaporating, in an era of "big 4" networks, and 500 channels of cable, and interactive internet television.

And then there is the politics.  Let's face it, public radio and television is slanted.  And I say this as a Democrat.  I may be a Democrat, but I'm not going to lie here.  To say that NPR news is not leftist is like a Republican arguing that Fox News is "Fair and Balanced" - you'd only be lying to yourself.

So, what really sticks in the craw of the Republicans, like Newt Gingrich, is that public monies are being used to fund a television and radio network that espouses political views - far left political views.  On NPR, employees are called "workers" in every news story (shades of Marxist ideology here!), and the slant on every story is about the enshrinement of victimhood.  Everyone is a passive victim of events in the NPR world, and the government experts need to come in and straighten things out!

I may be a Democrat, but I'm not a Communist. And much of what is on NPR these days is really far-left drivel.  For example, take the issue of the Teacher's Unions, which is exploding across the country as people get $10,000 to $20,000 property tax bills in the mail and States face bankruptcy.  NPR reports this as the poor, exploited teachers, but rarely talks about exactly how much money many of these teachers (particularly those with seniority) are making.  Nor do they explore the staggering power of the teacher's unions, who collect $1000 a year from each teacher and then use it to lobby to protect their power.  Nor do they talk about the correlation between the rise of teacher unionization and the decline in test scores (and the rise of illiteracy) in this country.

No, no.  Everything on NPR is a bit one-sided, and teachers are all, without exception, saints, and mean old Republican governors who want to balance the budget are just the Grinch!

This is not to say that such viewpoints are not permissible.  Everyone is entitled to their opinion, no matter how wrong it is - for example, me.  But I do not use government funds to advance my "agenda" here.  Just some free web space provided by Google.  Using government funds to pay for a political propaganda machine just seems, well, wrong.  Particularly when the political machine advances the agenda of big government, big government unions, and other government solutions, ALL OF THE TIME.

So perhaps it is time to pull the plug on PBS and NPR.  Either privatize them as de-facto commercial networks and let them go out on their own, or re-invent them as real public access radio and television, with more locally produced content and less nationally syndicated kibble.

Because, let's face it, Public broadcasting is anything but public anymore.