No Muppet Left Behind

It's time for public broadcasting to go private.


At a recent Capitol Hill rally against proposed cuts in government funding for public broadcasting, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) claimed to be accompanied by Clifford the Big Red Dog. But in photographs from the rally, it's clear that "Clifford" is shorter than Markey, who, according to his office, is slightly more than six feet tall. The real Clifford, by contrast, is huge, towering over people and backyard fences. He's as big as a house.

Even if Markey had not presented an obvious impostor as Clifford, it would have been hard to take him seriously. Like most supporters of taxpayer funding for TV and radio broadcasts, he simultaneously exaggerates and minimizes the significance of the subsidy, refuting his own argument.

If you've been listening to NPR or watching PBS, which have been carrying scaremongering ads warning of the looming fiscal threat, you've no doubt heard about the legislation, recently defeated in the House of Representatives, that would have cut federal funding for public broadcasting by about 45 percent next year. "Some people are too little to call their congressmen," said the announcer in an ad on Maryland's WMPT as a montage of adorable babies was shown. "Why don't you call for them?"

Markey continued the shameless child exploitation at his Capitol Hill rally, which included a group of preschoolers. "We are here today," he announced, "to send a message to Republican leaders: Don't starve Big Bird."

As the father of a 2-year-old, I see Sesame Street almost every day, and I've noticed something Markey hasn't: Big Bird could stand to lose a few pounds. If Cookie Monster can recognize that his favorite snack is a "sometime food," surely his feathered friend could set a better example for America's tubby tykes.

In truth, however, there was little danger that Big Bird would have to cut back on those birdseed shakes. Sesame Street is one of the most popular children's programs in history–so popular that licensing fees from Sesame Street dolls, toys, clothing, and other merchandise are the main source of income for the organization that produces the show. As Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) pointed out when his colleague Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.) started waving around Bert and Ernie puppets at an appropriations hearing, "Your puppets get one-half of 1 percent of the money, so you can relax, Nita."

More generally, children's programming that has an audience does not need taxpayer subsidies. Noggin, which is more "commercial-free" than PBS stations, carries 12 hours of kids' shows (including two different versions of Sesame Street) every day, and they are at least as good as the PBS offerings in terms of entertainment and educational value. Parent-acceptable children's programming can also be seen on Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel, and ABC Family.

Nonsubsidized competitors likewise offer programs for adults comparable to those carried by PBS and NPR, including news, documentaries, music, cooking shows, and BBC series. That doesn't mean there's no place for the public stations; perhaps they do some of these things better, and there's always the argument that "not everyone subscribes to cable," as Markey noted (although more than 80 percent of U.S. households have cable or satellite TV, and only some of those that don't are going without it for financial reasons). But to the extent that the public stations' programming is valued, they should be able to attract enough private support to make up for the 15 percent of their budgets that comes from the government.

Supporters of the subsidy make much of how little it amounts to—"less than $2 per year per person," as Markey put it, for a program that Americans tell pollsters they consider one of the best uses of their tax dollars. But this argument cuts both ways: If the vast majority of us believe the money is well spent, shouldn't the stations be able to find plenty of donors who are willing to kick in substantially more than their $1.30 annual share as taxpayers? The very popularity that has repeatedly saved public broadcasting from federal funding cuts suggests it would manage to survive despite them.

Similarly, the argument that the funding cuts had to be defeated to prevent political interference with programming has things backward. It's government funding that makes such interference inevitable. The best way to keep public broadcasting editorially independent is to make it financially independent.