EDITORIAL: Kill Big Bird

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Congress can save a quick $420 million a year by zeroing out the budget for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. It’s a needless drain on the public coffers that has outlived its usefulness.

President Johnson saw the Public Broadcasting Act as a means of lending government support to arts and education programming, an element of his vision of the Great Society. That was in the days when the big three networks dominated television and AM radio was in its heyday. At the November 1967 bill signing, Johnson envisioned a future of “linking computers and satellites with a nationwide educational television-radio system to form an electronic knowledge bank” in the cause of education. To those who called this a wild and visionary idea, he said “Not at all.”

Time has vindicated LBJ. Today, there are hundreds of cable and satellite TV channels, satellite and HD radio and, most important, the World Wide Web. Americans have more access to more and varied content and vaster amounts of knowledge than ever before. Johnson’s dream has been realized, and government-funded public broadcasting is no longer needed.

The idea that public broadcasting must be preserved to give access to the arts and education to the disadvantaged is a romantic myth. The Public Broadcasting Service points to Neilsen data that show its audience closely reflects the demographic makeup of the country as a whole, but the 2008 Public Radio Tech Survey tells a much different story. According to that study, the average listener age is 54.1, and 90 percent of listeners are white. Of those, 84 percent are college-educated, with 48 percent having postgraduate degrees, compared to slightly more than 9 percent in the population as a whole.

Demographics such as this reinforce the argument that public broadcasting is an upper-class subsidy. It’s highly doubtful that the urban American underclass is rushing home to catch “Masterpiece Theater” and the best of British comedy.

Public broadcasting’s defenders make contradictory claims that the federal government only supplies a fraction of its funding, yet cutting it would put the organization into a death spiral. Public broadcasting receives about a 15 percent subsidy from the federal government, which is a reasonable cut to take in the public interest. Times are tough, and public broadcasting should not be given immunity from shared sacrifices.

Some of public broadcasting’s programs can be competitive in the marketplace. “Sesame Street” has long been used as an icon by PBS defenders, who stridently decry any attempts to “kill Big Bird.” But “Sesame Street” is also one of the most lucrative franchises to emerge from the public broadcasting system. The not-for-profit Sesame Workshop has merchandising deals for toys, games, clothes and air fresheners, among other things. Last year, Universal Studios Dubailand signed a deal to build three “Sesame Street”-themed venues at its Middle Eastern theme park.

If the Sesame Workshop became a for-profit publicly traded corporation, it could assume a large part of the burden of supporting public broadcasting, assuming its stockholders thought that was good business. In any case, we doubt that Big Bird is hurting.

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