Apparently, there’s a big fuss over an LGF page describing the decline of The Learning Channel, which was once a publicly funded network, to its current state and claiming that this is the fate that awaits a privatized PBS. Links from reddit have slammed LGF’s servers, but you don’t have to bother. Just bring up TLC’s wikipedia page and you basically have the entire article. I’m serious.
We can debate PBS funding if we want and I’ll get into that in a second. But I will point out a few problems with the editorial comments they leaven into their Wikipedia scraping. First, TLC was privatized in November 1980. Do you remember who was President in 1980, kids? It was not Ronald Reagan (Someone pointed this out in the comments; the post has since been edited to change the comment from “Reaganism” to “modern version is the Reaganism the gOP pushes [sic]” It’s still wrong).
Second, TLC survived as an educational channel for more than a decade. It was declining ratings that got them to their current awful state. They are not alone in that, however. The History Channel, Sci-Fi, Discovery, A&E, you name it — all have been going down the drain for the last decade. Frankly, Television, as a whole, has been going down the toilet. I have had family in town, off and on, for the last six months and, as a result, have watched non-sports broadcast television for the first time in about five years. It’s worse than ever. It seems that every show that isn’t a reality show is designed to get people to panic over things like human trafficking, Walmart, crime and especially politics. It’s not that these things aren’t concerns; it’s that the public is being subjected to a constant unceasing barrage of scandal-mongering, negativity and panic-stoking. No wonder our country is so screwed up. If it weren’t for visiting family and college football, I would have cut the cord long ago.
So TLC’s decline is just part of a larger general decline in television. It really doesn’t have much to do with privatization. If it hadn’t been privatized, it would probably just not exist. If I want Sal 11000 Beta to see something educational — and PBS isn’t on — I’ll stream something off Netflix or pop in a Planet Earth blu-ray.
So … now we can talk PBS.
There are a lot of misconceptions about our funding for PBS. Romney and his opponents are talking about cutting off funding to Big Bird. However, PBS does not produce Sesame Street; the Sesame Workshop does. If the Sesame Workshop wanted to, they could probably create their own network. No, PBS funding mostly goes to sustain the operations of rural PBS stations that could not survive without the subsidy, such as the one in my town.
I like PBS. I’ve supported them — with money and volunteering — at various points over the last 25 years. But I think it’s likely their operations could be reorganized to support rural PBS affiliates with less than a half billion dollars in subsidies. PBS boasts — constantly — about how educated and wealthy their audience is; wealthier and better educated than any other channel’s audience. That’s what they say. So why should we, give me another name for it, subsidize the rich?
The gripping hand, however, is that the political capital needed to cut off PBS would be enormous and would only benefit the budget by … half a billion dollars. We could win the PBS battle but lose the budget war, lacking any remaining political capital to go after the important things like entitlements and defense spending. In fact, I’ve long ignored any politician who starts his budget cuts with PBS. To me, it usually indicates someone who is fundamentally unserious about budget cutting. They’re picking a popular target that plays to conservative dislike of PBS/NPR. But they’re not really going after the big fish.
So to circle back to the impetus of this post: what does the decline of TLC tell us about the future of PBS? Nothing.