Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Who is the "Public" in PBS?

I grew up with PBS.

On those glorious days as a kid when I was ill enough not to go to school but well enough not to sleep all day, I'd turn on the ol' TV to Channel 10 and watch the likes of Sesame Street, 3-2-1 Contact, Electric Company and the other shows our local Public Broadcasting Service station aired.

My one regret now that I have children of my own is that in our decision not to have television in the house, our kids aren't getting the same exposure to the same PBS programming I enjoyed as a kid.

But in reading this story this morning, I have to wonder, who indeed is the Public in PBS?

The Deseret News reports that KBYU in Provo may lose its PBS affiliation because the station airs religious programming. Programming, mind you, that the station produces itself and gears towards a public audience generally receptive to its religious content. PBS itself, in evaluating its affiliates, seems ready to implement a 1985 statue banning PBS funding for stations that broadcast shows that are partisan, commercial, or sectarian.

Would this rule ban the broadcast of Sesame Street? True, the Children's Television Workshop, which has produced the show since the 1970s, is a non-profit organization, but considering the number of Sasame Street-themed books, videos, baby folderol and other junk one can buy, one could clearly argue that the show is commercial even if it's not pushing any products. To say otherwise is to argue that Elmo or Big Bird could be taped and broadcast sipping Cokes or Pepsis and that would be okay under PBS rules as long as they're not facing the camera and saying things like "Buy this soft drink."

Our local PBS affiliate used to air "The Frugal Gourmet," starring Jeff Smith. I loved watching this show with my father, who eagerly bought the cookbooks Smith hawked directly on the show. Sure, he didn't do it every episode, but I remember several occasions when the book was there, and that Smith mentioned it. Does that not qualify this show as commercial, and shouldn't any PBS affiliate that airs it lose its affiliation as well?

I'd be curios to hear if this same rule applies to National Public Radio, an entity which is hardly a bastion of non-partisan news and feature reporting. And with PBS stations airing the likes of Bill Moyers, the partisan objectivity of public television is also in question.

The problem with making rules like this is that you have people like me who parse them. Apply the rule to one, and, by golly, you have to apply it to all. Is PBS willing to take this punishment further and do a bit more than strafe at its affiliates, like LDS Church-owned KBYU and Howard University-owned WHUT, which dares air a Catholic Mass weekly for shut-ins, because of their sectarian programming which, by all accounts, is serving its intended public audience? Or is the rule going to be harshly applied for sectarian reasons while the rest of the rules get just a simple navel-gazing?

I'm not a betting man, but if I were, I'd be putting money in my belly button about now.

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