Amid the bombast over the relationship between Muppets and the federal deficit, a measure of sanity has begun to emerge in the debate over the future of public broadcasting. Even House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), a conservative who has called public broadcasting a "liberal sandbox," has retreated a bit from his vow to end federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
One possible reason is that the public thinks this is one government program that works. Even 80% of Republicans, in a recent poll done for the CPB, favored maintaining its $285-million annual appropriation, which is distributed to 980 stations nationwide through the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio.
Long-simmering philosophical differences over public broadcasting came into sharp relief Thursday at an appropriations subcommittee hearing in Washington. But even some harsh critics had complimentary words for the service. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) called it "thought-provoking." However, he also termed it a "totally unnecessary" subsidy for the affluent and unneeded in light of the "barrage" of commercial television and cable programs.
The subcommittee chairman, Rep. John Porter (R-Ill.), who calls himself a longtime supporter of public broadcasting, said that the CPB budget must be weighed against funding for vaccine and job-training programs for the poor. He did not mention federal subsidies to Illinois farmers.
If it is to maintain its preeminence in children's television, public broadcasting must respond to the inroads being made by commercial competitors. And if it is to mitigate its need for federal funding, it must drive harder bargains; critics say public television should have received more of the profits in the deals made with the makers of such hugely popular shows as "Sesame Street" and "Barney & Friends."
Programs like these can compete in the free market, but other fine programs cannot. This season's excellent series, "America's War on Poverty," comes to mind, as does "Reading Rainbow" and "The Puzzle Place," a series using puppets to teach self-esteem to preschool children.
The Republicans have a valid point in saying that government often fails to deliver services as well as private business can and that government should act only where the private sector fails. Clearly, public broadcasting is a government-subsidized activity that fills a void. Over the last 27 years it has demonstrated its merit on airwaves dominated by what aptly has been called commercial TV's "vast wasteland."
The CPB now faces possible recisions in its already appropriated budgets for the 1996 and 1997 fiscal years, and future authorizations are in doubt. Indications are that initial reductions would not be too severe and cuts would be done gradually. But all Americans who admire this valuable service should make their views known to Congress at once.