Expect public broadcasting fight ahead

Published 7:37 pm Saturday, December 18, 2010

Governor Bob McDonnell has issued a set of proposed amendments to Virginia’s biennial budget, and the expected fallout has already begun. Folks who support or are involved with those programs he has recommended trimming or whose funding he seeks to remove from state spending entirely already are preparing the torches and pitchforks for a march on the monsters in Richmond who threaten their existence.

At the front of that mob is a vocal, irate group of citizens out to protect taxpayer funding of public broadcasting. McDonnell has proposed cutting Virginia’s public radio and television stations out of the budget.

There’s nothing wrong with public broadcasting. In fact, some of television’s best shows appear on the public stations. And a more eclectic and interesting variety of music and talk would be hard to find to the right of Hampton Roads’ two public radio stations’ positions on the dial.

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And there is no question that public television has some of the most respected educational offerings available — think Big Bird and, for an older audience, Carl Sagan.

None of those qualities, however, is reason enough for the state to give those broadcast outlets the competitive advantage that comes from pseudo-sponsorship. There once may have been some validity to the argument that a broadcast medium unencumbered by cozy relationships with advertisers would be free to be a force for change in the community at large.

Supporters have argued for years that the educational opportunities the stations could offer as a result of being free from the need to compete directly with the big networks could make the investment worthwhile even outside of other considerations.

But things have changed since the first time such arguments were made on behalf of public broadcasting. Today, the average family can get more than 100 channels on their television sets at home, they can rent movies and documentaries from just about any mobile, Internet-enabled device, and they can research topics easier and more broadly than ever on the World Wide Web.

Today, public television and public radio compete directly with cable television and digital radio programming, and an annual contribution to public broadcasting’s coffers by the taxpayers of Virginia gives an unfair boost to the non-commercial entities.

None of which will make much difference to those who believe that public broadcasting is a national treasure worthy of whatever boost taxpayer funds can provide.

Prepare yourselves for a slew of letters, talk show appearances, articles and columns in the weeks ahead describing a bleak world where the Count can no longer teach children their numbers and National Public Radio can no longer broadcast its hours of daily indoctrination. Prepare to hear about children being left behind and polar bears on thin ice as educational programming is “yanked off the air.”

Incredibly, this proposal has the potential to be one of the most volatile issues in the next General Assembly session, starting in January. We’ll keep an eye on it for you.