Cable-television networks such as Nickelodeon and the Discovery Channel should serve as economic models for public broadcasting, Gov. Haley Barbour quipped recently. The governor introduced his budget last month and, as expected, he called for cuts in education, the arts and Mississippi Public Broadcasting.
"Mississippi taxpayers should not continue subsidizing a television and radio network, so I also again recommend a sharp reduction of 15 percent in the appropriation for Mississippi Public Broadcasting," Barbour said at his fiscal-year 2013 budget recommendation unveiling.
"MPB must rely more on private sponsorship than tax dollars to operate, and the board of directors has committed to more aggressively raise funds to go toward budgeting purposes. This decrease should begin a reduction in funding for MPB that will ultimately result in its operating on private donations or advertising revenues, except for educational programming used by MDE."
A legal obstacle is in the way of this vision. MPB can't sell ads, not the type of commercials you see on television or hear on the radio. Legally, as a member station of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a sponsor message is limited in what it can say. It can't use adjectives to say how great it is or how bad a competitor is. It can't tell the audience to go to a department store sale or buy a new car. The understated nature of its advertising is central not just to retain funding from certain sources, it's also conducive to maintaining a tone of calm objectivity.
Republicans have suggested using cable networks as an example of how to broadcast the arts, children's programming and science documentaries without government funding. The implication is that the market has a place for classical music, ballet, educational shows and scientific discoveries.
But look what happened to A&E, Bravo! And The Learning Channel. All started out with high ideals of presenting quality programs with an emphasis on arts and education. Bravo! Now gives us surreal housewives in catfights instead of ballet. A&E gives us "Storage Wars," "Dog the Bounty Hunter" and "Hoarders." The Learning Channel now goes by TLC with a schedule of shows that include "Say Yes to the Dress," "Sister Wives," "Strange Sex" and "Toddlers and Tiaras."
The two networks Barbour specifically mentioned as models for MPB—Nickelodeon and The Discovery Channel—have prime-time line-ups designed to attract advertising and viewers. Nickelodeon's evening shows start with "SpongeBob SquarePants," then moves into its Nick at Nite fare, including reruns of the syndicated shows "My Wife and Kids" and "That '70s Show." An evening watching Discovery might include episodes of "American Chopper," "Moonshiners" and "Sons of Guns."
The cable networks survive partly because of the old reruns and partly because of the lower costs of reality programming. Producing an episode of "NOVA" with its explanatory graphics, accurate science and quality sound is going to cost more than hanging out with a group of gold diggers—whether it's the gruff men on Discovery's "Gold Rush" or the frustrated women playing parts on any of Bravo!'s "Real Housewives" shows.
You could make an argument for many of these shows. We get an in-depth look at subcultures and personalities. "MythBusters" and "Cash Cab" are two Discovery shows that just as easily might appear on public television. Many shows on commercial TV and commercial radio are probably great enough to be on public broadcasting, but much of what we get on cable TV is meant to sell Viagra.
The reality-show craze has multiplied out of control; the most popular shows now appeal to the lowest common denominator. I can't make the argument that the Jersey Shore youth subculture deserves more examination. It's like the worst of MySpace on steroids and tequila.
The other call from Barbour—the one that encourages more private support—would be a tough sell in Mississippi. It's easy to look at a successful, privately funded public broadcasting system like Oregon Public Broadcasting and assume Mississippi could have the same success. Much is different between OPB and MPB.
OPM, started in 1922 as a physics experiment and has had wide support from private donors for a long time. MPB didn't begin until 1970 and serves a less educated and poorer audience.
As the Jackson Free Press reported last May, MPB's radio coverage was crucial in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. MPB bought much of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency communications equipment, and MEMA relies on MPB's radio towers that cover the state for its emergency services.
MPB takes its public service seriously, with programs like "Quorum," "Mississippi's Big Problem" (we're fat and metabolically challenged) and "Job Hunter." Some MPB critics in the Legislature complained last year that "Mississippi Roads," the only show they thought worthy on MPB, had no new episodes. That's because MPB didn't have the funding to produce more. Mississippi culture is still showcased on programs like "Sucarnochee Revue" and "Writers."
I haven't seen anything like that on Nick at Nite or on an episode of "Pitchmen."Have you?