Big Bird is a Red Herring

(UPDATE: PBS MediaShift is running an extended version of this article, in which I flesh out my argument in more detail. Check it out.)

Every time someone threatens to cut PBS's funding (as Mitt Romney recently did), its supporters play the Big Bird card. "Surely, Mr. Grinch, you won't rob the children of their Big Bird??"

I'd like to call "bullshit" on that tactic. Using Big Bird as a symbol of PBS's value is disingenuous and obscures the legitimate questions of (a) whether PBS is essential and (b) whether it should be federally funded.

I worked for PBS for 6+ years, and have in fact spent most of my career working to raise the visibility and impact of public media online.

So, I'm in the pro-public-media camp.

But Big Bird is a red herring. He's not an apt symbol of PBS, a network that is also home to Downton Abbey and the NewsHour, This Old House and, yes, doo-wop shows at pledge time. PBS is a variety show and Big Bird only represents one act.

We may need Big Bird, but do we need PBS? Do we need the variety show?

Ken Burns says yes. In a recent op-ed, titled "Romney's war on public TV is a loss for USA," he wrote:

"In an increasingly difficult world to navigate, with multiple media outlets and a constant onslaught of viewpoints, PBS remains our shared space, one where we can experience the best in arts and education, public affairs, history, science and journalism.

It is a place where we can all feel at home."

I don't think so. While PBS is definitely valued by millions of Americans, it's a stretch to call it a shared space. And the problem for PBS, trying to make its case to Congress and funders and the public, is that while it's valued by millions of Americans, different people value it for different reasons. For some people, PBS is Big Bird, and more generally, a safe haven for children (I personally think PBS KIDS is a national treasure). For others, PBS is about cooking shows, or investigative journalism a la Frontline, or Antiques Roadshow. The aesthetic and audience and mission of PBS shows is all over the map, and it's not clear, to me, what knits them together. What's the common value proposition?

I believe passionately that noncommercial media is essential to our democracy. But I think that if the government continues to fund PBS, NPR, local stations and other public media organizations, the programming process at these organizations must be overhauled. Executives in board rooms shouldn't be the only ones with a say in what makes it to the airwaves -- there should be more accountability, transparency and responsiveness in order for public media content to truly meet the needs of diverse Americans.

As Ken Burns pointed out, PBS represents something like 1/100th of 1% of the federal budget. Or, as astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted:

Cutting PBS is not a smart or meaningful way to improve the economic outlook of this country. But that doesn't mean the government should necessarily fund PBS. Just because something is affordable doesn't mean it's necessary.

What do you think? Is PBS essential -- so much so that it warrants federal funding? More generally, do you think it makes sense for government to fund media in an age when anyone can be a media maker? (by writing a blog, creating a YouTube video on their phone, etc)

Some things I've written elsewhere about public media:

Other posts from this blog that you might be interested in: