Ever since last week's Presidential debate, liberals have latched onto Mitt Romney's vow to cut federal funding for PBS, despite his avowed love for Big Bird from the Sesame Street show, as predictable proof of the Republican's meanness. Now comes a backlash from observers who feel that the Obama campaign has gone too far presenting itself as Big Bird's protector. The Children's Television Workshop itself has asked the campaign to stop using Big Bird, insisting that it and its products are essentially nonpartisan. On the Time magazine website Michael Grunwald makes now-familiar arguments against subsidies for PBS -- and he's an Obama supporter. The main argument is that PBS doesn't need the government money, considering that only 12% of its revenues come from that source. Grunwald notes that Sesame Street itself, as well as other PBS programs, are formidable money-making ventures that would have no problem surviving in a competitive commercial environment. He adds, with a flourish of reverse-snobbery, that "the right to watch commercial-free TV does not strike me as a basic human right." Defending PBS, Grunwald concludes, makes Obama look like the pettiest sort of big-government dead-ender, unwilling to do without the slightest thing for the sake of the budget.
When I was growing up the contrast between PBS and its only rivals, the three commercial networks, was more stark than any comparison that can be made today. Since then, the proliferation of cable and premium cable has made possible a wider range of alternatives, including channels with commercial-free programming. The only difference between PBS and HBO, it might be said, is that you opt for commercial-free programming on the latter by paying your cable provider a good deal more than however few cents of your compulsory taxes go toward the former. But for many people the choice, not the cost, is all that counts, and those people resent the diversion of any of their money without their consent toward something they don't watch and which some, no doubt, see as a liberal propaganda machine. I don't watch PBS much myself these days. I don't exaggerate much in guessing that the local station is in pledge-drive mode every other time I turn it on, and that pledge-drive mode means lowest-common denominator programming like concerts of geriatrics performing pop hits of 50 years ago and marathons of ancient British comedies. As a kid I thought of PBS as the "educational" channel, and it might have been thought of more broadly as the "cultural" channel, but in that latter role my impression is that PBS has dropped the ball in recent years. They still run the Metropolitan Opera and the mixed bag of Masterpiece Theater, but my mental image of PBS is more like a montage of Antiques Roadshow, pledge drives, old people singing, and Are You Being Served? My point is that PBS isn't really ambitious enough to deserve its federal subsidy, but that any perceived failure of PBS doesn't discredit the idea of high culture subsidized by government. We shouldn't assume that anything of "worth" can pay its own way in the world, and we shouldn't accept that everything of worth has to "sell" itself. Big Bird may not need a subsidy, but others might, and others still might benefit from the subsidy someone gets that allows them to inspire someone far away. The state should be able to act as a patron of the arts without appearing to impose an "official" culture on unwilling or uncomprehending people or imposing political conditions upon artists. It should also be able to set a higher (and perhaps more inclusive) standard than seems to apply at PBS and its member stations today. Finally, Grunwald may be right that we have no "human right" to commercial-free television, but something like that -- not something on a pay-to-play basis like HBO -- is a mark of a civilized society. Or is that too much to ask of America in 2012?