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PBS should heed Romney's example for budget cutting

| Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012, 12:02 a.m.

One guess for the first budget cut if Mitt Romney gets to be president?

Big Bird. Who'd have thought it?

Public television and radio can't say they weren't warned. They've been a sacred cow for a half-century or more, a legislative untouchable beloved by liberals, right up there with the farm bill and Social Security. (In Pittsburgh think blameless, exemplary, invaluable station WQED. Who could dare suggest an organizational shake-up?)

The Republican candidate must wish he could take back what he said. Too explicit. That's risky for office-seekers. In last week's presidential debate, he was asked where he'd cut the budget — be specific now! — and he spouted the first thing (probably) that came to his head.

Now he's not apt to get it out of everybody else's head.

Just recall former President George H.W. Bush's catastrophic pledge (which he broke) to raise no new taxes. “Read my lips,” he said. The public did.

Romney menaced Big Bird specifically, though with a smile. He “loves” Big Bird, he said, the fun-figure of educational “Sesame Street” that helps keep kids in front of the box. Takes all the scare out of reading, writing and ‘rithmetic, a friendly bird does.

But talk about scary prospects for the nation these kids will grow up in. Getting control of a $16 trillion national debt has to start somewhere, said Romney. The Public Broadcasting System must go.

From one point of view, this is swatting a fly.

If PBS went dark tomorrow, the federal government would lose scarcely a step in its rush towards bankruptcy. What's $1 billion a year, if even that, for taxpayer-funded broadcasting against a budget shortfall growing at over $1 trillion annually? A trillion is 1,000 billions.

On the other hand, why do we need “government broadcasting” (with all the potential of Big Brotherly propaganda) in a marketplace of hundreds, thousands of cable channels and other electronic pathways? Every kind of content almost certainly would make it to the air, somehow.

Ah, but what would happen to quality, such a slender reed to stand against the profit motive?

Who would broadcast the Metropolitan Opera or the great orchestras? The Nutcracker or Christmas Carol in December? And high-quality public affairs programming in all seasons?

But has anybody noticed that the Met already beams live opera into movie theaters? That commercial stations in other cities broadcast classical music and make money at it? And that “Sesame Street” is an entertainment and licensing empire (estimated at $200 million) bound to find a new home on cable should PBS lose its lease on the taxpayer pocketbook.

It hasn't escaped notice that public television originally took pride itself on taking no commercials (yet learned to drive its viewers up the wall with “pledge periods” for donations). Now it airs commercials in “good taste,” although with clear intent to move public opinion, from the likes of BP Oil and BNSF Railway.

Commercial broadcasters can't be so numb to opportunity that they'd fail to buy the best PBS programming if it came up for sale.

Lingering suspicions about the liberal, big-government slant of PBS News would be dispelled for good. So why not privatize?

Romney is right on this one. Bet he's sorry he scared Big Bird, though.

Jack Markowitz is a columnist on Thursdays for Trib Total Media. Email him at jmarkowitz@tribweb.com.

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