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Public Broadcasting Needs Continued Federal Support

Column by Daniel C. Stevenson
News Editor

The first time I ever saw a black man was on the television show Sesame Street. His name was Gordon, and he was friends with Olivia, Luis, and Maria. Luis and Maria spoke Spanish sometimes, which was the first time I ever heard a language other than English. They even had a friend named Linda who spoke with her hands. All these different people learned, worked, and played together with the cast of fuzzy monsters, animals, and even the occasional grouch.

The first adult to talk to me about death was a funny guy named Mr. Rogers. Mr. Rogers liked to change his shoes regularly, which I never did understand. But he told me plenty of things I did understand, about friendship, about families, about growing up.

The first time I saw a human cell was on Nova. After the show, I spent days holding a magnifying glass to my hand trying to count my cells. Later, I saw the rings of Saturn for the first time and learned about millions and billions of stars and galaxies from Carl Sagan on Cosmos. Even before I went to the zoo, I had seen lions and zebras - on Richard Attenborough's Life on Earth. Better yet, I had seen a lion eating a zebra; an unusual sight in a zoo.

It should be obvious what all these experiences have in common - they were created by public broadcasting. Since 1967, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has been producing commercial-free programs like Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers, Mystery and Masterpiece Theater, and The MacNeil /Lehrer News Hour.

It should also be apparent that my experiences were in no way unique. Millions of children have watched and learned from Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers. Many people, both adults and children, have learned about black holes for the first time from Sagan or about the Serengeti from Attenborough. Each and every day, hundreds of millions of American adults and children tune in to public television and radio broadcasting to get the kind of programming they like, without commercial influence.

Sure, there were alternatives to public broadcasting, then as now. I could have watched good guys with red lasers kill bad guys with blue lasers (or was it the other way around?), and sometimes I did. I was certainly fascinated with trucks and cars that turned into gigantic robots with ominous sounding names.

And I could always have tuned in the talk shows and heard about "Fathers Who Confront The Men Who Impregnated Their Daughters." These shows have a place in modern American culture - people have diverse interests, and there is money to be made in catering to these interests. If advertisers decide a show is not violent enough or too boring to attract large amounts of viewers, the show doesn't run because the networks need to make money and attract viewers.

However, public broadcasting has always made a point of not catering to any advertisers or specific interests. Public broadcasting is able to remain free of commercial manipulation because of federal, private, and viewer support. Because public broadcasting can free itself of commercial ties, shows like Sesame Street and Cosmos are produced; programming that deals with complex, diverse concerns that don't lend themselves to 30 second clips or laugh tracks.

Several years ago on Sesame Street, the storekeeper Mr. Hooper died. The producers of the show didn't try to gloss over his death or write him out of the script as would be typical on commercial television. Instead, children could empathize with Big Bird, who couldn't understand why Mr. Blooper, as he sometimes confused his name, wasn't coming back. They learned, as Big Bird did, from the adults on the show about what death meant. Another example: Carl Sagan holding a roll of toilet paper and talking about the number googol obviously does not hold mass commercial appeal. But that doesn't matter for PBS, which is free to provide the kind of quality programming that would otherwise slip through the cracks on commercial television.

Recently, some in Congress have been calling for a cut in federal support for the CPB. In their zeal to cut federal excesses, these newly invigorated legislators risk destroying about the only saving grace of broadcast television. For every $1 of seed money the federal government provides to the CPB, $5 of funding is raised from private foundations and corporations. Critics in the House of Representatives argued last week that public broadcasting can get by just fine without government support. However, it is that federal support that provides the key initial dollars that bring in the external grants. Take away that money, and the CPB would have to aggressively court foundations and corporations.

Perhaps they could sell commercials, as one congressman against continued funding for CPB suggested. But this would just turn PBS over time into another commercial-driven network. Advertisers would have great influence on the programming, just as they do on other commercial networks. PBS can certainly stand to make more money by cutting good merchandising deals for products related to their shows, which they recently did with Ken Burns' series on baseball. However, that money will never make up for the amount or importance of the federal seed money.

Others argue that with so many channels available on cable television today, nobody needs public television. They forget that cable is expensive and no way near as widespread as public television; more than 33 million children today do not live in homes with cable television. And cable television is still commercial-driven. Why is it that none of the major networks or cable channels would carry the drama series I'll Fly Away, which now enjoys success on PBS? One obvious reason is that the series is about the civil rights struggle in the south. There is more than a token black presence on the show, which addresses difficult and at times depressing topics. There is virtually no sex, and the violence is not of the shoot-em-up variety - in one scene, firemen turn fire hoses on a group of black children playing in the street.

Public broadcasting provides a means of education and entertaining children and adults in a format that is not driven by fickle advertising money or ratings reports, but by genuine interest in providing the best possible programming otherwise not found on the networks. Good programs on PBS last for decades, not a few seasons.

When these same lawmakers call for teaching "values" in the schools, they would do well to look at the values I learned from Gordon and Maria and Bert and Ernie. When they speak of improving math and science scores, they would do well to watch an episode or two of Nova or Cosmos, and hear Carl Sagan explain millions and billions. And when they complain that children don't have a grasp of geography or history, they should take a look at Ken Burns' Civil War. If they really want to make America better, they should continue and increase federal support for public broadcasting, not cut funding and reduce it to just another commercial network.