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Critic's Notebook: The value of public broadcasting

February 15, 2011 | 10:00 am

Downton You may have heard that there are several bills now being floated in Congress -- most notably the budget plan issued Friday by the GOP-run House Appropriations Committee -- that propose entirely to defund public broadcasting. These are political, not practical, proposals: The money such cuts would save is not meaningful in terms of balancing the budget, and what it would spare any individual taxpayer is literally small change. If your cable or cellphone provider were to raise your rates by the amount you now pay to help fund public broadcasting -- an average, by the estimate of the public-broadcasting advocacy group www.170millionamericans.org, of $1.35 a year -- you'd never even notice. Certainly, you wouldn't cancel your subscription over it.

It's your small change, fair enough, and you may feel that nothing that PBS or NPR or their affiliates provide is anything you'd miss. We could go back and forth on that all day and never get anywhere. And, admittedly, I'm one who thinks that paying taxes is indeed "patriotic" -- it's the people acting as a body, not just out of highly localized self-interest -- even as I don't support every use toward which they're turned. As it is, public broadcasting is already supported largely by viewer and listener donations and corporate grants, and will not disappear from the face of the nation if Washington turns off the already trickling tap -- at least not in money-rich, big cities like ours, though less well-heeled communities may suffer real losses. Which is just the sort of market inequality that government funding is meant to allay.

Pbsnewshour In 2005, as PBS was again coming under attack for "liberal bias" -- it's liberal in the sense that it stands for things such as scientific inquiry and equal access and "the arts," which by their nature are provocative, and I suppose in that it's partially supported by tax dollars, but this is a disposition, not a platform -- I focused a critical eye on the network and wrote this essay/feature for The Times. And though some of the small details of broadcasting have changed since then, I'd make the same arguments today.

Paradoxically, the less that public broadcasters have to rely on their audiences -- the less they're required to behave like a commercial network -- the more equitably and impartially they may serve them: Secure funding makes demographics and ratings less relevant. News, for example, does not have to be run as a circus. And while the expanding televerse seems to be taking care of much of the business that once made PBS such a clear alternative to the narrow interests of commercial television -- there are whole channels now for science and travel and food and children's programs and even British TV, all traditionally big pieces in the mosaic of public broadcasting -- there still remains a difference in seriousness and scale and depth and purpose in what they produce. PBS is, uniquely, a network with a mission, and not merely a business plan.

Neither PBS nor NPR is beyond criticism; they are run by humans, who play games and get things wrong. (See: the Juan Williams affair.) PBS seems to me less adventurous than in decades past, which may not be entirely due to a growing necessity to please the crowd. Not every program the network -- which is to say, its member stations and producing partners -- produces or acquires is of equal quality. (A few are no better than infomericals.) Perhaps its mission could use a business plan. These things should be open for discussion. But public broadcasting remains unique and valuable: Its charter is not to show you only those things you already know you like or to confirm you in your beliefs, but rather to open you up to new things, to enlarge your mind, which means possibly to change it. Its underlying purpose is to make us smarter, better citizens, and that this is worth $1.35 a year seems to me well beyond dispute.

Related:

PBS and its grand ambitions: A week of viewing finds its promise trumps the politics, Barney and all

-- Robert Lloyd

Photos: Top: Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern in "Downton Abbey." Bottom: Senior correspondents of "PBS NewsHour." Credit: PBS.

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