Ten Miles Square


December 30, 2011 11:44 AM Big Bird and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism

By Harold Pollack

According to the Wall Street Journal:

GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney says he wants to reduce the deficit by bringing commercials to PBS. During an appearance in Clinton, Iowa, Romney said “My test is — is a program so critical that it’s worth borrowing money from China to pay for it?” He went on to say “I like PBS. We subsidize PBS. Look, I’m going to stop that. I’m going to say, ‘PBS is going to have to have advertisements.’ We’re not going to kill Big Bird, but Big Bird’s going to have advertisements, all right?”

This is not the most important political or policy debate these days. Yet few issues provide such a stark contrast in the governing vision of the two parties.

Romney’s suggestion provides an obvious dog whistle to cultural conservatives, who seem to harbor an amazing hatred for public broadcasting. They harbor similar hatreds for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and (increasingly) efforts to support science education that touch on icky subjects such as evolution, human sexuality, or climate change.

The irony here is that PBS and the national endowments are profoundly conservative enterprises. I don’t mean that Sesame Street or school educational programs outside Texas specifically promote issue positions favored by Fox News. These efforts conserve and communicate our cultural, artistic, and scientific heritage within a broader popular culture that would not otherwise attend to these tasks.

PBS provides a rare safe haven from the crude and cruddy world of commercial television, which is such a destructive force in so many ways in American life. One does not have to go all Tipper Gore to be dismayed at the sight of media conglomerates hawking sugar cereal and burgers to children, and use sex and violence and clunky product placements to sell whatever to everyone else.

There’s also the simple fact that most commercial television is relentlessly and depressingly bad. True, the affluent can get high-quality dramas such as the Wire through the concierge-care option of pay cable. That’s hardly adequate. And is there any free or non-free cable show to match the quality of Frontline, American Experience, POV, or Nova? If so, I haven’t seen it. The public broadcasting option is incredibly important.

Sure, the federal government could save a little money by cutting back on subsidies to Sesame Street. I’m sure that Tony the Tiger, the Little Mermaid, Ronald McDonald, and GI Joe can fill the available space. Boeing can foot the bill for NOVA. Maybe Apple can pay for American Experience. Bud Light can expand its portfolio beyond ultimate fighting to cover Frontline. None of these companies is evil. But we need a place to raise our kids and to spend our own viewing time that doesn’t depend on these commercial pressures.

As a nation, we must also make reasonable investments to provide every citizen access to excellent science, news, and arts programming that the commercial networks will not deliver. I’d rather raise taxes on ourselves or on rich people to pay for it. But if I had to borrow money from China to deliver it, I would do that too.

Decades ago, Daniel Bell recognized a capitalist economy has the potential to destroy itself by undermining the very moral values of discipline, integrity, and excellence that are required for capitalism to thrive. I don’t always agree with Thomas Friedman or David Brooks about politics and social policy. Yet both are onto something in their belief that something is genuinely amiss in our common life. We must resist a commercial culture that bombards us with messages of instant gratification, lowest-common-denominator entertainment, and retail therapy as the default solution to many problems.

Know-nothing attacks on PBS provide yet another sad sign of a mediocre time. Bring back the patrician conservatives such as George Will who talked about Statecraft as Soulcraft. Big Bird, we need you to resolve the cultural contradictions of our capitalist society.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.


  • Lauren Marinaro on December 30, 2011 12:31 PM:

    I'm not sure I understand where either side is coming from on the "killing Big Bird" issue. I am a mom and I watch a ton of Sesame Street. There is advertising on Sesame Street, from McDonalds to Chucky Cheese to the American Egg Industry. Its at the start and the end of the show. And Sesame Street is just as much a merchandizing industry as Disney. These characters are on diapers, toothpaste, plastic cups any anything else that can be within 50 miles of kids. After 42 years, do they really need public dollars to maintain their quality? I'm happy that we subsidized them before, but it doesn't make me a crazy conservative to ask for an accounting of why they can't finally take the training wheels off their trike and do it themselves!!

  • Crissa on December 31, 2011 2:24 PM:

    Apparently, mom, you don't bother to wander down to pbs.org/funding or npr.org/funding or cpb.org/funding and finding out how much these shows get money from the government to be produced.

    Or why they have the little mini-ads at the ends of shows - or the difference in time advertising is on the screen between public and profit television.

    I guess you're willing to go without. It does make you a crazy conservative ignorant of the reality they live in.

  • Severian on December 31, 2011 2:51 PM:

    I was a kid who watched thousands of hours of PBS in the 80s, and I still remember the "WTF???" feeling I had the first time I saw one of those 10-second mini-ads after a show. Those weren't supposed to happen! And they still stick in my craw today (it doesn't help that there are about 10 times as many now as there were even a few years ago). All the same, as the author says, it's worth it if it means we can have SOME space on TV that's free from the wretchedness and avarice of the networks.

  • Harold Pollack on December 31, 2011 5:38 PM:

    I think Lauren Marinaro and Severian makes a good point. PBS has moved some of the way already. This is something to be contained and resisted, not something to be openly embraced as the business model.

  • Steve on January 01, 2012 12:43 PM:

    May I refer you to a posting on the Current Public Media blog, "Reno's KNPB to drop 2.5 hours of children's shows, forgo after-school programs" (http://currentpublicmedia.blogspot.com/2011/12/renos-knpb-to-drop-25-hours-of.html).

    "[T]he changes 'will allow us to serve a larger audience of viewers . . . and donors . . . who not only watch but help to financially support our important service.'"

    I believe this tells you just about all you need to know about the state of "public" broadcasting.

    Please give.

  • Lauren Marinaro on January 02, 2012 10:57 AM:

    I think my question boils down to: is PBS seeing the merchandizing dollars that are being made from Big Bird and Elmo (and for that matter, from Dinasaur Train or Super Why--also great shows that are making bucks at Toys R Us) or are they losing out and then asking us to pony up via tax dollars because they have a raw deal on merchandizing?

    Other cable networks (Disney Jr. and Nick Jr.) have blocks of time in the morning solely devoted to shows for the under-5 crowd that have no advertising except for other shows on their network. They must have figured out that building the brands of these shows were payment enough and the merchandizing would make up for lost advertizing dollars.

  • john on January 11, 2012 3:43 PM:

    what it really comes down to is being forced to subsidize views/opinions that are not only different than those held by many individuals but actively hostile to those views.

    while I agree that non-public TV is miserable, and I do enjoy public broadcasting, I don't get why there is such a disconnect here. Public money should not be used in a manner that is repugnant to a large chunk of the population. If that means that there can be no NPR that is sad but i don't think it will come to that.