Out of America: Knives drawn on public TV

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The Independent Online
Washington - A simple New Year question, for those following the opening days of the Age of Newt. What will be the most spectacular success of the Republican campaign to roll back government ?

Changes in the welfare system, you might reasonably answer, a cut in income tax maybe, or an end to federally funded midnight basketball. I have another prediction. A year from now, I would bet that publicly funded television and radio, in the shape theyhave existed for a couple of decades, will no longer be.

Like the National Endowment for the Arts, those other besieged relics of the Great Society, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) is under perhaps mortal threat. Speaker Gingrich and his Republican cohorts want its head; to have it they need onlystrike its funding out of the budget.

Interventionist liberals have far larger causes to defend from the spending cutters than $285m (£190m) earmarked for the CPB. Such is the real ideological battle in the America of l995, not between Democrats and Republicans as such, but between advocatesof small and large cuts in the reach of government. As November's election showed, the latter are winning hands down.

Let me say at once, there is much that is wrong with public TV. It can be stodgy, pious, self-congratulatory and repetitive. One more prime-time repeat of Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras in concert in Los Angeles, and I will be ready to kill.

Rightly, Mr Gingrich complains that public television and radio have a liberal bias which is not in their founding charter. The bias is admittedly small, nothing compared to the conservative outpourings of the talk-radio hosts who were invited in person to Capitol Hill last week to attend their hero's coronation. But it is undeniable.

More to the point, the Public Broadcasting System funded by the CPB could live without its annual $285m from government. It comprises only a seventh of the PBS budget, behind corporate sponsorship (recompensed by thinly disguised ads) and what the jinglecalls "contributions from viewers like you". So Mr Gingrich flays it as a "toy of a bunch of rich, upper-class people", which should be "zeroed out". Those who want it, should pay for it, adding that he would happily give $2,000 a year to a "privatised"PBS.

Now the Speaker is not an entirely disinterested party. The futurist in him is obsessed by proliferating cable TV and its interactive, power-to-the-people charms. The hard-edged politician Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, is a star of National Empowerment Television, a conservative cable network which runs two of his shows a week. But Mr Gingrich is right when he argues that if PBS properly marketed its most popular creations - like children's-programme superstars Big Bird and Barney the cuddly dinosaur - potential royalties would dwarf the loss of $285m.

So why continue to fund it from central government? Is public money a prerequisite for making good television? After all, where once public TV stood alone against the networks, now there are dozens of cable channels to satisfy every taste. The trouble is, of course, they don't.

Forget the imported British drama series for which public TV here is famous, or its unmatched educational programming. If I can't find a decent documentary, a serious programme on history, culture or the arts on a public station, channel-surfing is likely to unearth one elsewhere. Such are the dictates of supply and demand. But please, no transatlantic complacency at public television's agony.

In Britain, such a thing could never happen - surely. After all, Tory governments have been huffing, puffing, and generally venting their wrath against a liberal broadcasting elite kept in clover by the taxpayer's involuntary largesse, and for longer than Speaker Gingrich is likely to be around.

But the BBC remains a listed national monument. True, it may have lost a few bricks over the years. Its pillars though will only be shaken in earnest when competing new commercial channels arrive in number. That is the predicament of public broadcasting here today. One day, it will be that of the BBC. When British viewers have dozens of channels to choose from, what price then the licence fee?

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