The kerfuffle over Big Bird that came out of last Wednesday’s Presidential debate has been great fodder for the 24 hour news cycle and comedians, but it seems to be considered only in the context of the different policies of the two candidates.
In passing, I saw a post on Facebook about the history of TLC and how it changed after privatization. And that prompted me to consider the underlying assumptions of this story. When Romney spoke about this, his underlying assumption was that outside of the addition of commercials, programming would undergo minimal change if PBS was privatized.
The history of TLC really challenges that underlying assumption. TLC was originally “The Learning Channel”. That name was not a marketing tool – in 1972 the channel was launched as a joint venture of the federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare and NASA. It was to be provided free using NASA satellites. The channel was privatized in 1980. In the period directly following its privatization, TLC continued to provide educational programming like Ready, Set, Learn and Paleoworld. After having changed hands a number of times, TLC ended up housed in the Discovery Communications company. With increasing pressure on the channel for ratings share, their programming has devolved into sensationalist fodder for the popular culture mill. Case in point – Honey Boo Boo. But this isn’t a criticism of TLC – far be it for me to criticize anyone from watching sensationalistic, voyeuristic crap, I live on that type of programming.
But, we also need our broccoli. And, in this analogy, PBS is the broccoli. Public television is a national trust, one that we need to protect. It provides reliable sources that inform our understanding of the world. It helps to create an engaged, informed citizenry. And, it uses a modern technological achievement to contribute to the education of children – particularly in lower income demographics who can’t afford to purchase cable packages that provide dedicated child-centric networks. In short, public television raises the bar of social discourse for a very reasonable price.
TLC is not the only example of how programming can decline in the face of the constant competition for ratings: Bravo and A&E also gave up their highbrow focus in favor of less educational, more sensationalist programming. And again, not a criticism of those choices – I will watch Andy Cohen and the Real Housewives of [any city large enough to house a camera crew] every day of the week. But, surely, the stories of these channels’ intellectual demise challenges the underlying assumption that privatization will not change the nature of PBS.
You can argue that we don’t need to subsidize educational programming. I believe we do, but at least that could be a discussion rooted in reality. What we can’t do is pretend that PBS will survive in its present incarnation if we decide to change its underlying principles.
For more information about the transformation of TLC see this great article at Modern Primate.
For details about the benefits of public broadcasting, see Brown, A. (1996). Economics, Public Service Broadcasting, and Social Values. Journal Of Media Economics, 9(1), 3