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The debate on PBS

The debate on PBS — Conservative politicians want to eliminate the home of “Sesame Street” and “Reading Rainbow”

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Ask Brent Bozell about Tongues Untied, a documentary about gay black men that aired on public television in 1991, and you’ll get a quick taste of why some conservatives are itching to pull the plug on the home of Big Bird and Barney.

”Here’s a program on prime-time television,” says Bozell, chairman of the right-wing Media Research Center in Alexandria, Va., ”with the kind of visuals and language that would not find their way into a triple-X adult theater. You ever see it? Unbelievable! Unbelievable! It was all about the joys of anal sex, from blacks to blacks, and of oral sex — with all the visuals and the descriptive language possible. On prime-time television! Paid for by you and me!”

Bozell is outraged, but he’s about to get revenge. Often treated by liberals as the Vatican City of the federal government — tiny, holy, and untouchable — but long reviled by conservatives,the Public Broadcasting Service is the target of a fierce bombardment by Newt Gingrich’s budget-slashing Republican Congress. Gingrich himself has dubbed public broadcasting a ”sandbox for the rich” and talks of ”zeroing out” money for the 346 PBS stations.

On the flip side? The Big Bird Argument, which says draining money from PBS would cripple shows like Sesame Street and Barney & Friends, lone islands of ad-free programming for kids.

Yes, the folks who brought you The Civil War are caught in a war of their own, and the clashes are none too civil. Republicans insist the PBS fracas is a matter of priorities: The national budget is bloated — and a plum like PBS looks expendable. ”We’ve got a tough job to balance the budget, and you just can’t keep everything,” reasons Craig Murphy, a spokesman for Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.). ”PBS will be able to survive on private funds, through corporate sponsorship.” Murphy’s partly right: Public television gets only 14 percent of its budget from the government’s Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

But the drama is about more than cash. After all, the $285.6 million doled out by CPB is a mere crumb of the $1.5 trillion national-budget pie. Deep down, this fight is about values: One side sees the Cookie Monster, the other sees the monstrous Tongues Untied. In the spirit of Sesame Street, here’s a guide to the ABC’s of the debate.

A. Everyone’s got cable now, so we don’t need PBS.

Back in 1967, the Johnson administration helped create PBS as a cultural oasis in the vast Sahara of network TV. Now, with the profusion of cable offerings such as Arts & Entertainment, Nickelodeon, and Bravo, many believe PBS has become about as necessary as a cup of sand. ”If you look at the landscape today, with the superhighway taking off, there is no justification whatsoever for the taxpayer to pay for cultural programming,” says Bozell.

The catch is that not everyone has cable. While major cities may be brimming with opera and animal shows, rural expanses of the country get most of their cultural programming from PBS. ”It’s the biggest irony in the world: For most of the places that don’t have cable, public television is the only alternative to network TV,” says Ric Burns, coproducer of The Civil War. ”And the smallest stations will be the first to go.”

A prime example is Texas’ KCTF, a tiny outpost in Waco that gets 43 percent ($379,018) of its $883,858 budget from the federal government — and only about $120,000 from private donations and fund-raising. ”If we lose that 43 percent,” says station president Randy Ramey, ”the impact most likely for us will be blackout.” Ramey calls the Waco area ”a very conservative, family-oriented county, and a lot of people complain about the violence and sex on commercial TV. An awful lot of folks really do value us.”

Much of KCTF’s mom-and-pop programming is stuff you might find in Mayberry: a learning program for a technical college, a show for senior citizens, a media lab for students at Baylor University. ”I loathe the day that I have to get on public TV and tell children, mothers, and retired people that we might have to go off the air,” says Ramey. ”That will be one of the saddest experiences of my life.”