It’s possible for me to see now, that the ’70s and ’80s were a golden time of public broadcasting in Canada and the US.
I understood as a child, and I see even more so now, Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers, Friendly Giant, and Mr. Dressup are… unparalleled goods for Children. They teach wonderful, soft, life lessons… dare I say, we could even agree they are very “Christian” in the attitude they promote in children. They are patient, loving shows, that show children a gorgeous, pastel world they can make happen, if they show respect for other people, and don’t eat too much paint.
And unlike the glorious cartoon crap I actually loved at the time, being made by the private broadcasters (Thunder thunder thundercats!)… they weren’t primarily about selling toys and ad space to impressionable young minds. What a relief daytime PBS must have been to working parents in an age of 4 channels. Because, kids (it turns out) can be totally exhausting: and how wonderful to be able to hand them over to Mr. Rogers or Bert and Ernie to discuss bathing or collecting paperclips for a while
And, I now see that Bob Ross, and Julia Child, were also at the same time putting out a “how to paint” and a soft-sell cooking show that changed America. It’s all… really wonderfully wholesome. I think it’s the quality of programming even the flintiest conservative would be thrilled to have on television: educational, promoting a culture of values, and promoting value in culture.
But, over the span of my youth, Public Broadcasting came under attack from… lets call them “small state conservatives.” Public Broadcasting had the effect of putting the government in competition with the market-driven broadcasters, and adding more content to a very saturated market: if the market really values what’s being pumped out, why not let it make it? And… it’s not inexpensive to operate TV studios. And is it really the job of the government to be funding art lessons, and puppet shows?
Well, the government became significantly thriftier as the cold war wound down. Bob Ross, Julia Child, Mr. Rogers have all died. I don’t believe the values they personally brought to their shows, and thus into the homes of the nation have been replaced: although we do make much more content now. But is there any value to cultural content without values? Or is it just pith, froth and noise?
In 2012 Mitt Romney campaigned on cutting off funding for Big Bird. HBO purchased Sesame Street from PBS in 2015. (Although, let me give Sesame Street credit: They’ve got GREAT content available on you tube still.)
But while fiscal conservatives appear to have won the war on public broadcasting… cultural conservatives were losing the wider cultural war. It’s difficult to deny that between August of 2001, when the last original episode of Mr. Rogers Neighbourhood aired on PBS, and 2015 when Sesame Street left PBS… the markets influence on what is suitable children’s content has gone through radical changes: and it’s changes that conservatives have found themselves on the losing argument for at each turn. The “market” is not friendly to conservative values.
Now… that said… it wasn’t for nothing that cultural conservatives bought into the argument that government shouldn’t be in the business of creating culture: after all, PBS of the 1970s and 1980s spent a lot of time arguing for racial integration, which conservatives at the time, stridently hated. Mr. Rogers shared a wading pool with a black man on a hot day, because it was the neighbourly thing to do. That’s not a symbolic message I imagine the hardboiled voters for George Wallace were happy to see their tax dollars putting on the air.
But I can’t help but think as America appears to be descending into tribal vitriol, and is unable to unite for “the good of the nation” maybe conservatives should reconsider their stance on public broadcasting, and embrace a nationally funded channel to promote decency, and something other than shock values and the almighty dollar into America’s living rooms. But I’m not conservative, so I’d need to ask if there’s any value in that
So, two questions:
And before you answer either of them… in the words of Mr. Rogers “stop, and think of someone who had a positive influence in your life.”
(1) Who is your favourite Sesame Street sketch or character?
(2) Do you think there’s a conservative case to be made for the value of America having a strong publicly owned broadcaster?