Big Bird and the cultural contradictions of capitalism (A.K.A. the public television option)

Big Bird, we need you to resolve the cultural contradictions of our capitalist society.

(Cross-posted at Blog of the Century)

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.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

23 thoughts on “Big Bird and the cultural contradictions of capitalism (A.K.A. the public television option)”

  1. “PBS and the national endowments are profoundly conservative enterprises. … These efforts conserve and communicate our cultural, artistic, and scientific heritage. …”

    This is part of the larger fact that the Democratic Party (except with respect to “national security”) had become the conservative party, as it tries to conserve the gains of the New Deal and Great Society from the Republicans’ radical attempts to destroy them. Even gay marriage, while new, is essentially a conservative movement, as it brings gays into the mainstream. Now that the partial achievement of universal health care has occurred, the Democrats cannot hope to achieve anything progressive, but only to conserve past gains.

    With respect to “national security,” of course, Obama has radically aggrandized presidential power and, when he signs the defense authorization bill, will have rolled back civil liberties not only to the pre-Bill of Rights era but to the pre-Magna Carta era.

    1. When I wrote “defense authorization bill,” I should have put “defense” in scare quotes, just as I did “national security.” We need not help promote governmental evils by using the government’s propagandistic terms. Do you remember when the Defense Department was more honestly called the “War Department”? Obama’s unconstitutional and illegal drone attacks on half a dozen foreign nations do not promote national security or defense, but in fact endanger us.

  2. I have long been fascinated by the spectacle of conservative Christians (mostly) who vigorously deplore the sexualization of our culture, yet are oblivious to this being a consequence of an unfettered commercial sphere. But I suppose if your desired end-state is a free-market theocracy it all makes sense.

    1. A free-market theocracy would be optimal, but they’ll ditch the theocracy for the free market every time.

      GOP qars on the NEA, NEH, PBS, etc. get the rubes to the polls — while the real action is out back, where they’re backing trucks up to the loading docks at Treasury.

      Give me a straight-up conflict between God and Mammon where the GOP *hasn’t* swung Mammon, and by a veto-proof majority. Same thing with their professed attachment to small government. Their watchman-state’s most important role is providing a police escort to their getaway cars en route to the Caymans.

      1. I more-or-less agree with Davis, but I can think of one straight-up conflict between God and Mammon in the Godly states where God won a few rounds: gambling. True, God had some support from libruls here, who view gambling as a tax on people who can’t do mathematics. But few American Taliban approve of gambling, and they’ve been the decisive difference occasionally.

  3. Romney represents commercial interests that are not entirely democratic in nature. PBS is our modern day public square where cultural diffusion, understanding and knowledge can be propagated earnestly among human interests. No wonder Romney’s using dog whistle rhetoric – public discourse can be threatening to those who would wield power for a select few as opposed to those who would serve our nation’s citizens with judicious and equitable solutions to our myriad problems.

    Yeah, Sesame Street provides decent cultural inculcation, but our economically ultra-conservative loved ones and their evangelical allies are relentlessly waging war on its existence, along with their general persistent war on common sense! So it makes sense that Romney gloms onto such a red herring. As he is wont to do many times, his distasteful tendency of catching the political wind only to tack a different direction at a later time is showing quite elegantly!

  4. It’s not like public television is currently advertising-free right now, is it? WTTW (Chicago) reports that “corporate underwriting” accounts for 9% of its budget (roughly equal to federal and state government support), and I’m sure that some of the 39% reported as coming from individuals is actually business/corporate. And I suspect that WTTW is at the low end. WFYI (Indianapolis–this and Chicago are the two stations I watch most often) gets 22% of its budget from corporations, and only 16% from government support. My impression is that corporate support has increased significantly over time, although acknowledgement of this has been less intrusive than advertising on commercial TV.

    So while I agree that public television has a unique mission, I also suspect that its mission has already been compromised by the necessity of sucking up to corporations for money.

    1. To reply to myself. One of the largest “revenue” categories at WTTW is “production contracts,” at about 40% of the 2010 budget (WTTW originates a fair amount of programming). And a fairly large chuck of that is corporate; think of the programs that have “programming underwritten by” announcements.

    2. Yes! PBS already has commercials. Both W WA stations available in Seattle show spots that can only be described as commercials. I really hate the KCTS voice-over that says “Now let’s take a moment to thank those that made this program possible.” Then they show names of corporate sponsors and sometimes little commercials about a sponsor’s product line. This is way beyond “Masterpiece Theater is brought to you by Mobil”.

      PBS has really declined in quality over the last 5 years. And their fund-raising programs are sometimes espousing BOGUS science. I have a hard time giving them money these days. Very sad because where else can you get good science programing (like NOVA used to be before it got dumbed down with whooshing sound effects and stupid graphics tricks).

  5. Love to see someone ask Mitt:

    “Do you believe children are consumers in training and if so, is it okay with you to have Captain Crunch cereal (50%+ sugar by weight) as part of that training? Or would you ban certain advertisements? Which ones?”

    (Sometimes a question can be a pie into the face of a weasel.)

    1. Mitt would say: “Of course corporations are people and as such have a God given right to tell and sell kids any damned thing they like so long as they have the money/free speech to pay for the privilege, I mean right.”

      So let’s see Big Bird decked out in stiletto heels and garter. Sell it baby, sell it! Gimme any crap an’ I’ll show ya my pimp hand!

  6. I don’t think you have to be affluent to subscribe to HBO, and you certainly don’t have to be affluent to wait for The Wire to show up on streaming Netflix for $7.99/month. And if you have home internet access, you can download it through nefarious means for no marginal cost to you, though I would never do or recommend such a thing, of course.

    1. I don’t think any of the famous HBO or Showtime dramas are available on streaming Netflix – though I’ve certainly watched the discs through Netflix.

    2. It depends on what you define as “affluent”. As a graduate student in the late 90s/early aughts, with an income of about $1500-$1600/month before taxes, HBO was definitely an unneeded luxury for me (not counting that it wasn’t available in conjunction with Basic Cable, as I recall, so you first had to upgrade to a bigger package).

      Note that I’m not complaining — I’m not very much of a TV person to begin with — but those economic constraints were very real, and I don’t think that my discretionary income at the time (as either a single, childless woman or splitting bills with a boyfriend with similar income) was particularly low.

  7. I too adore many PBS shows, but here for perhaps the only time, I sort of agree with Romney. We ought not to borrow to put on tv shows.

    We own the darned airwaves, we have a ton of writers here, I really don’t see why this should be such a problem, at all, ever. We could either raise taxes, or have cheaper production.

    1. Or get really crazy and have the corps. that currently “lease” the spectrum pay a fair value fee for usage and use the proceeds to fund public broadcasting (amongst other things).

    2. I think you underestimate production costs even if you want to be cheap (without throwing quality out of the window).

      An interesting example here is Joss Whedon’s “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog”. Joss Whedon spent $200,000 of his own money on the film (and thus it was clearly in his own interest to keep production costs down). That despite having called in a huge amount of favors to get the film done and all the actors acting for free (or rather, for a promise of a share of the proceeds). And, of course, not having to pay a writer at all since he, his brothers, and sister-in-law wrote the script and composed the music.

      In the end, TANSTAAFL. You want quality productions, you generally have to pay for it (Joss Whedon had the benefit that he could trade in a lot of intangibles).

      1. You’re probably right, really. I just prefer to raise taxes if we have to.

        Lots of great stuff on PBS. And I wish they would re-run things more often. There was a really great Oedipus a long time ago, with an actor who looked like Danny Elfman. In an ice cream suit. (As you can see, theater is not one of my areas…)

  8. It is always of interest to hear people without knowledge discuss subjects about which they obviously know little to nothing. And when it comes to public broadcasting funding from the federal government, the political world is full of know-nothings. Someone on Romeny’s staff needs to read the FCC rules regarding noncommercial educations licensees and corporate underwriting.  PBS is a membership association created and funded by local stations to efficiently do collectively what each individually cannot do for themselves. Big Bird is a character in a program series created by a private corporation which sells the right to broadcast the program on stations.
    The private sector is already the majority funder of public TV, by far.  The feds contribute .0007 percent of the discretionary part of the
    federal budget and most of that money goes to the nation’s smallest communities that do not have the population base and corporate base to support those local public stations. Advertising is not an option for them.  
    By the way, I am not happy to finance GOP wars of aggression, or corporate welfare which from CATO Institute website is $140+ billion,, or all of the tax breaks for GE and others who pay no taxes, or the military-industrial-congressional complex, or Congress’ plush salaries, pensions, healthcare and other extravagancies, and on and on. My list is long.
    As always, this issue is a right-wing sop to the fox-viewing, rush-listening Americanus Ignorati who currently control the GOP, which I am willing to forgive if they would just claim permanent insanity.

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