Recently, the Discovery Channel’s top science reality show, Mythbusters, sent its stars, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, to meet with President Obama at the White House. The president, enjoying his role as guest star-in-chief, praised the show for making science “fun, exciting, and interesting.” Fans of Mythbusters can share bi-partisan agreement with the president on this point.
Over the past eight years, the Mythbusters have educated millions on scientific principles by putting popular myths to the test. These tests often involve high explosives, high powered weapons, building intricate devices for tests, and a host of other weird and wonderful touches that keep viewers coming back for more.
The presidential commendation of Mythbusters is interesting because Mythbusters is produced by the private sector for commercial television. The success of Mythbusters and a wide range of educational programs on the Discovery Channel as well as Animal Planet, The Learning Channel, and the History Channel challenges another myth: that the existence of educational and culturally enriching television depends on taxpayer-subsidized public broadcasting.
When the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) was founded in 1967, television was dominated by the three networks. However, over time, with the emergence of cable and satellite television, the amount of choices that Americans had in their viewing and listening increased considerably and the ratings threshold required to support the continued existence of a program went down.
In the 21st century, nearly every type of program that PBS is well-known for offering is offered on a private television channel. If you want nature documentaries, turn to Animal Planet. If you want to watch great British programs, watch BBC America.
In addition to this change in television, home video distribution has further altered the equation, particularly with most public libraries stocking hundreds or even thousands of educational video titles. These innovations make the case for spending $422 million this fiscal year on public broadcasting incredibly weak.
It should be noted that an end to federal funds for public broadcasting does not necessarily mean that most PBS and NPR stations will go out of business. Only 15% of the funds for public broadcasting come from the federal government. Most of the support for these stations comes from private donations from individuals and corporations. If public broadcasting depended entirely on government funds, most stations would have gone under long ago.
However, local stations depend strongly on pledge drives. During these pledge drives, the viewers and listeners of public broadcasting determine that the programs they are able to enjoy on public television add such value to their lives that they’re willing to give money to keep them on the air. It’s through this voluntary action that we have a mostly private public television system.
Congress should make it a completely private television and radio system by phasing out funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting over the next two to three years. The left will resist this move for ideological reasons. After all, they’ve spent many years arguing that we can only have culturally significant television and radio programs if the federal government is forcing us to pay for them. Accepting privatization would mean conceding that myth has been busted.
The good news is that there is some momentum for privatization. After all, the president’s deficit commission actually recommended eliminating all funding for the CPB by FY 2015. In terms of the dollars involved, eliminating funding for the CPB will have a minimal impact on our long-term fiscal problems, but it represents a key gut-check for fiscal conservatives. If Congress can’t bring itself to disappoint fans of Mr. Bean and The McLaughlin Group by ending an outdated and unnecessary subsidy, how will they ever find the courage to seriously address the issue of entitlement reform and stand up to special interest groups who have greater motivation to fight spending cuts than a fear that Dr. Who reruns will no longer be aired?