The Common Good
March-April 1995

Are PBS and Cable Like Cain and Abel?

by Danny Duncan Collum | March-April 1995

It was inevitable that our de facto federal ministry of culture would be among the first and most visible targets when Newt Gingrich, the Trotsky of the Hard Right, took the ...

It was inevitable that our de facto federal ministry of culture (public broadcasting and the endowments for the arts and humanities) would be among the first and most visible targets when Newt Gingrich, the Trotsky of the Hard Right, took the House. Like his Bolshevik predecessor, Gingrich

has always taken cultural politics very seriously. This inclination is one of the main reasons why the Right has been so effective in addressing the frustration that has brewed for the past 15 years among lower-to-middle-class white Americans.

Cultural issues-questions about values and meaning and the ties that bind, or don't-are central for all turn-of-the-century U.S. politics. And cultural institutions-the mass media, the schools, the popular arts-are both the site of the battle and the prize for the winners.

Cultural politics is, of necessity, mostly symbolic politics. In this phase of the culture war, Newt and his buddy Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) have targeted public television as an intensely visible symbol of the way "normal Americans" are oppressed by the elites who control national bureaucracies. They say public broadcasting is used by the elites to serve their refined tastes and pampered sensibilities, while the rest of us pay the bill.

Is public TV really what Newt calls it-"a sandbox for the rich"? Is it rendered irrelevant by the age of cable? To answer that question for myself, I analyzed the evening schedule for a typical week on Washington, D.C.'s WETA-TV, one of the "feeder" stations of the PBS chain.

Of the 21 prime-time hours (post-MacNeil-Lehrer and pre- Charlie Rose), seven related to some sort of science and nature programming. Three hours were devoted to British entertainment programs, three to "classical" music of European origin, and three more to historical documentaries. Another three hours went to the 1950s Hollywood movie Giant. That leaves two hours for public affairs: One went to the Friday night snooze-fest of Washington Week in Review and Wall Street Week, leaving 30 minutes for local politics and 30 minutes for the local arts.

All of this programming certainly has a right, and a reason, to exist. But Newt and Pressler are right that much equivalent programming does now exist on A&E, Discovery Channel, Learning Channel, CNN, C-SPAN, etc., without public subsidy, but with commercial interruptions.

Of course, only a little more than half of America's households have access to those cable channels. But the cable households are found in the higher-income part of the population, and so they represent a huge majority of the actual voters. And, let's be frank, they also include most of the audience for all that elite "public" culture. Newt and Pressler are right that the people who really want Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! already have cable and could easily pony up $15 a month for an all-Brits-all-the-time premium channel.

So this does, in large part, amount to a system in which the average taxpayer foots the bill so that people with elite tastes can avoid the annoyance of commercials. This, of course, is an option that will never be available for those whose tastes run to monster trucks and true confessions. That's how the cultural Right wants to frame the public TV debate. If the battle is fought on those terms, public television will lose...and it should.

BUT THAT IS NOT the whole story. There is another side of the TV guide, in the daytime, and the case for public TV is there, in children's programming. That is where the battle should be fought because that is where the core issues about market culture and the common good are most sharply drawn.

As commercial TV culture evolved and matured in the 1960s, it became apparent that leaving young children to the mercies of the market would spell social disaster. Like it or not, a lot of children were going to be in front of the tube during most of the daylight hours. They were a ready market and the commercial broadcasting system proved itself incapable of self-restraint in the means it used to capture and deliver that market for advertisers.

Backed by Great Society and foundation cash, the Children's Television Workshop stepped into the breech with Sesame Street, aimed specifically at urban pre-schoolers. Other programs followed and today public television offers an entire day of constructive (or at least non-destructive) children's programming, free of commercial interruptions. Nothing is sold except literacy, common decency, and, yes, maybe some slightly mushy cultural relativism.

In brief, public television for children succeeded as mass culture in the public interest. It beat the market at its own game. As we all know, there are no more prized commercial spokesmodels now than Big Bird and Barney. And those mythical beasts, even as commercial figurines, are at least to some extent accountable to educators and parents, and not just to the market.

Children's programming on public television can be seen as a case study for a good, democratic cultural policy. The children's shows serve a social need and supply a public good that commercial market culture is incapable of recognizing. They do it well and they have created a mass culture constituency that is not completely beholden to market forces. This represents a rare zone of culture democracy and sanity, and it is one that Americans should learn from and build upon.

DANNY DUNCAN COLLUM, a Sojourners contributing editor, is a free-lance writer living in Alexandria, Virginia. We are pleased to have his "Eyes & Ears" logo back in our pages after a break for him to concentrate on his academic and other writing commitments.

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