The Beg-a-thon Goes On and On

I’ve been a lifelong sucker for Public Broadcasting ever since I discovered The Six Wives of Henry VIII meant more to me than The Six Million Dollar Man. There is no doubt Podunk America benefits disproportionally from the offerings of NPR and PBS.

Consider: this week it was announced that MOMA would mount a tribute to the cinema of Vienna – 70 films from silents to early Ophuls to the present. Not something that’s going to show up in my Outback Cineplex.

But thanks to public broadcasting “people like you,” as they say, have seen Derek Jacobi, Helen Mirren and dozens of others in signature roles. We’re had access to years of Masterpiece and Mystery, NOVA and Frontline, Great Performances, Sesame Street, American Masters, Radiolab, Left, Right and Center, TED Talks, A Prairie Home Companion. The list goes on and on.

Public funding for broadcast accounts for a laughably small slice of the federal budget, a bit more than a buck per person. And a lot better spent than most of my tax dollars. But that hasn’t prevented the right from constantly trying to cut funding, to zero if possible. Between 2010 and 2012 they managed to knock another $50 million off the stipend so that federal dollars now account for about 15 percent of public TV money and 11 percent of public radio.

Hence, the perpetual Beg-a-thon. The pleas for viewers like me to pony up used to be an annual affair, then twice annually. Now they seem never-ending. Public financing was supposed to permit a place for worthy programming that might not attract high ratings –opera, nature and science shows, documentaries, history , grown-up dramas, classics, public policy debate instead of rants, investigative journalism instead of weak-kneed conventional wisdom.

The cuts in public funding and increased reliance on individual donors has led to an inevitable dumbing down. To attract the lowest common denominator viewer long enough to make a pitch for dollars, public TV scraps large swaths of its regularly scheduled programming during the Beg-a-Thon.

Instead, we’re subjected to dreck indistinguishable from commercial TV – golden oldie jukebox shows, infomercials by pop psychology gurus and self-help quacks peddling immortality via a diet of nuts and berries. Which adds up to less time for the kinds of programming only public broadcasting used to provide. What’s next? The Real Housewives of Parliament? A Ken Burns documentary on the Dynasty of Duck? Vampire Street to help kids learn their ABOs?

The conspiracy-minded might suppose the real reason the know-nothing caucus opposes all funding for science and health, research and development, the arts and education, public broadcasting and libraries is in order to keep their backers ignorant of the world they inhabit – the intellectual equivalent of barefoot and pregnant.

Well, in the immortal words of Francis Urquhart, “You might very well think that; I couldn’t possibly comment.”

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