Big Bird Should Leave the Nest

Romney was right about public broadcasting.

Commentary by Pete du Pont

Source: Wall Street Journal

It's time to end the federal subsidy for public broadcasting. Doing so now would be good for President Obama, Congress and the American taxpayers. And, it would also be beneficial for public broadcasting's two arms, radio's NPR and television's Public Broadcasting Service.

Mitt Romney had many excellent ideas about reshaping the role of the federal government, and one of those ideas was letting public broadcasting stand on its own. Although the media and the liberal intelligentsia widely mocked Mr. Romney's effort to "kill Big Bird," he was right on target in his first presidential debate with Mr. Obama when he said, "I like PBS. I love Big Bird," but added, "I'm not going to keep on spending money on things" that require us "to borrow money from China to pay for."

Mr. Romney lost, but while Mr. Obama's inaugural speech last week did not include much to hearten conservatives and other backers of a smaller and more responsible federal government, he did say Americans have not "succumbed to the fiction that all society's ills can be cured through government alone," that we "understand that outworn programs are inadequate to the needs of our time," and that we "must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government."

Unfortunately, Mr. Obama, now freed from the constraints of re-election, used much of the speech to lay out an aggressive liberal—and therefore costly—agenda. But right now the country wants the president to show at least some interest in fiscal responsibility. Voters want the president and Republicans in Congress to try to find common ground where possible. Eliminating the spending on public broadcasting fits the bill.

Dropping federal support for public broadcasting would reduce our national debt by around $5 billion over a decade. Now, $5 billion over a decade is probably not considered "real money" in Washington, but it should be.

Obviously, more would be needed, but the president and Congress coming together on this relatively easy $5 billion would show that some common ground can be achieved and that they can work together. Who knows what could happen after this? Could we see the elimination of wasteful spending in the farm bill that is up for renewal this year? Could we see a well-deserved reduction or elimination of corporate welfare? Perhaps even an agreement to end the almost-always counterproductive green energy subsidies?

Defenders of federal spending on public broadcasting always fall back to the argument that it provides a range of programming, particularly educational programming, that might not be found, or might not be affordable, otherwise. There is also a desire to make sure rural areas have at least some access to this programming.

Those would be excellent rationales for this use of federal money if we still lived in the world as it was in the 1960s when the Corp. for Public Broadcasting was formed. But, we don't; the world changes and the broadcasting and educational landscape has changed tremendously since CPB's founding. Cable and satellite have provided a buffet of interesting news, cultural, and educational offerings for years. And the Internet—with its ubiquitous availability in homes, schools and libraries, and on cellphones, iPads and Kindles—provides far more access to information than public broadcasting ever could.

In any event, public broadcasting would survive without the federal taxpayer support. Would a loss of federal dollars that provide 15% to 16% of its funding cause some pain and require some adjustments? Of course, so maybe the cut can be phased in over two or three years, while PBS and NPR work to draw on their donor base, foundation and corporate supporters, continued support from states and localities, and enhanced advertising opportunities to fill the gap. It could be liberating. The CPB has asked Congress for multiyear federal funding commitments in order to partially shield it from what it calls the threat of "immediate political pressure" on its programming. Would it not be better to completely shield it by removing its reliance on such funding altogether?

PBS has great programming such as "Sesame Street," "Nova," "NewsHour," "Washington Week," and "Masterpiece Theatre," which will survive just fine and drive viewers, donors and sponsors to support other PBS programming. The same is true for NPR, with "Fresh Air," "A Prairie Home Companion," "All Things Considered" and "Car Talk." They will continue to thrive.

Perhaps these entities will need to tighten their belts a bit, but is that not what families and businesses do all the time? In the meantime, Washington will have taken a long overdue first (albeit small) step toward reshaping our nation's government for our times and restoring our fiscal health.