Privatize Sesame Street!

Wow, are people still talking about Big Bird? Romney said in the domestic policy debate last week that he would cut federal funding to PBS. Obama’s supporters responded with a flurry of media attention. Who knew this was such a third rail?

Romney’s critics are right that ending PBS subsidies would not make a dent in the trillion dollar deficit. You could save as much by taking a break from one of America’s wars for a day or so. And Romney’s plan to nearly double defense spending over the next decade makes the proposal to trim away the comparatively trivial public television budget for the purpose of saving money seem all the more absurd.

Nevertheless, I am struck by just how defensive the left is over government subsidies to Sesame Street. Progressives seem to embrace the show and think it is important in instilling values to the country, thus reinforcing the conservative impression that the programming is liberal propaganda.

I grew up with Sesame Street, and, as with many culture-war hot buttons, I find myself taking a moderate position. The show has some good content. It also teaches some questionable lessons. I recall an episode where the denizens would just not relent in their harassment of poor Oscar the Grouch, beating on his can repeatedly, accosting him for being a curmudgeon. They wouldn’t just leave the guy alone. And if you think about that character, and several others, there’s just as much a case to make that they encourage bigotry and classism as there is that they teach kids tolerance and love for all. The same mixed bag is found in most public and private programming. Let’s not hold any of it up as worthy of universal support through taxation.

One thing I always loved about Sesame Street was the great work of Jim Henson and his whole team. Indeed, one of my favorite documentaries of the last few years, Being Elmo, tells the story of a dreaming artist and master puppeteer autodidact who came from an unlikely background and rose up to create the title character, one of the most famous puppets in history. It almost brought tears to my eyes. It also made me respect the character much more.

But if that documentary should remind us of anything it’s that government does not need to subsidize Sesame Street for it to survive. The marketing revenues could easily finance the franchise. Then there are the donations. There are far too many talented people, celebrity guests eager to grace the show, and enthusiastic viewing families, numbering in the millions, to allow Sesame Street to close down, even without a dime of government help.

In this day and age, it’s hard to believe we are fighting over public funding of TV, whether educational or any other type. There are a million shows available on cable and online. There sometimes seem to be more content producers, attempting to fill every niche of interest, than there are viewers. It’s a consumer’s market in media, and many produce content hoping to give it away for free. Time is the scarcest commodity and kids of all ages will only watch something if it’s interesting. If Sesame Street can compete on this front, and it can, it can easily get the funds privately to put up Ernie, Burt, the Count, and Snuffleupagus for another fifty years.

And if it can’t, then it doesn’t deserve to exist. On what basis can taxpayers be forced to finance something no one wants to watch?

The biggest short-term reason to privatize Sesame Street is to eliminate this culture-war football. I feel even more passionately about this as it concerns NPR. I enjoy National Public Radio, although not as much as some of my liberal friends. But it can easily survive without government funding. So why not take away this conservative talking point? Is it really worth fighting over? We should cut the funding not so much to save money, but to save Sesame Street from the nasty muck of politicization.

My impression is that left-liberals do not want the subsidy to drop, not because it will spell the death of Sesame Street, but because it won’t. They are more wedded to the idea of the subsidy’s necessity than anything. Out of principle, nothing should ever be cut—and if the market and private means were able to sustain it just as well, that would only embarrass them as one more example of civil society filling the supposed void left by government.

In the longer term, we ought to move toward separating TV and state as a general rule. Liberals wouldn’t want government financing religious messages on television. But actually, any set of values being espoused on the taxpayer’s penny raises the same kind of issues. It both taints a religious message and infringes on the rights of those outside of that religion to force them to bankroll it. Same with the seemingly secular scripture of Sesame Street. The state should have no say in any broadcasting, and moving toward that ideal is far more important than the money involved.

A final note on Big Bird: I’m not the biggest fan of his. Of all the characters on that show, he was never my favorite. It’s not so much his bumbling and invincible naiveté; he just seems to lack rich character development. But I’m perfectly happy to leave him alone. I do resent paying for his birdseed, however.

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