by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

When we were kids, there were four TV channels. The one with the peacock, the one with the eye, the one marked abc, and the “smart” channel.

That “smart” channel was PBS.

It was usually on the far end of the dial — where I grew up it was Channel 12 — and all we kids really understood was that it didn’t have cartoons, and it was supposed to be good for us. As we grew, we found some interesting programs, and eventually our own children tuned in to see Big Bird and Cookie Monster.

Also, it had no commercials.

A big plus for the smart channel.

Well, the smart channel — which gives us shows like “Sesame Street,”
“Barney & Friends” and “This Old House” — is now in a heap of trouble, thanks to conservative politics, which wants to stop its funding.

“PBS is a sandbox for the rich,” says Newt Gingrich.

Hmm. So is a $4-million book deal.

But, for some reason, Newt is in less trouble than Public Broadcasting. The government contributes $285 million a year to PBS, and critics say no one would suffer if that money were taken back.

PBS says it would cripple the operation.

I, personally, think they should double the funding.

But then, silly me, I still believe government is for people, not politicians. A world beyond ‘Roseanne’

Let’s face it: $285 million — in a country that spends billions on tanks and planes — is a drop in the bucket. Do you honestly believe that money will show up in savings to you and me? If public program snips like this really made a difference, then why — after all that Ronald Reagan destroyed
— is this country still in such a mess?

I’d feel a lot better if that $285 million were handed back to the citizens of this country — which, by the way, would only amount to $1 per person. But you just know those savings will be lost to some congressman getting cozy with a savings and loan, or some senator giving a contract to a friend, who then charges the government $600 for a hammer.

Meanwhile, we would lose something special, a network that doesn’t answer to Nike or Budweiser. And that would be tragic.

Here is one of Gingrich’s reasons PBS should go: It is “elitist.” I suppose he means that plays, operas, documentaries, and kids shows without Power Rangers are elitist.

This, of course, from a man who makes policy based on the movie “Boys Town.”

Maybe the problem isn’t that PBS is elitist, but that our leaders’ standards, like many of ours, are now set by the junk pit of pop culture.

Well, here’s some news. Life is not a “Seinfeld” episode. And all the wisdom of the world does not lie in ESPN SportsCenter, “Roseanne” and
“Beverly Hills 90210.”

There is a rich universe of culture and information out there, and while it’s true there are now several cable channels offering quality programs, remember that 1) Not everyone in this country gets cable 2) Cable costs money 3) Those channels have no guarantee, they could be dropped for the Golf Channel or the Pro Wrestling Channel.

Or the Newt Channel. The difference: Profits

Only 14 percent of PBS’s budget comes from the government. The rest comes from your pockets — fund-raising auctions — and from corporate donations. Newt and his boys say that’s enough to run the network.

But the truth is, those sources could dry up anytime. They are not guaranteed. A bad economy could slow the faucet quickly.

Besides, isn’t there something proper about the government contributing to make art and education that is good for the people? Nearly every government in the world does this. Sure, there are PBS shows you think are too this or too that, but they try. And they often succeed. Think about “Sesame Street,” or
“Mister Rogers,” or the Civil War series.

Or Ken Burns’ “Baseball.” No major network would have given it nine straight nights. Yet wasn’t that, at the very least, a worthwhile thing to watch? Better than another episode of “Baywatch”?

Know this, folks: The rest of the TV dial is not run for your mind, but for your pocketbook. Advertisers want to sell stuff. They don’t care if it’s stupid, violent or sexual. If there’s an audience, they’ll support it. This is why TV programs have spun down the toilet. The lowest common denominator means the most money.

There is little money in educating viewers. Sometimes, companies prefer you stupid. Shows like PBS’s “Frontline,” which could investigate a profit-sucking corporation, might never find a home on commercial TV.

To me, that’s reason enough to increase PBS funding. Guarantee at least one network without an ulterior motive. A government should be proud to support this.

Someone should tell Newt that good TV is not defined by how many times he’s on it.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

Subscribe for bonus content and giveaways!