Content starts here

Big Bird vs. Rush Limbaugh: The PBS Wars Explained

Here's a little bit of TV trivia for you: Back in the 1960s, The Corporation for Public Broadcasting was created to replace National Educational Television...because NET was considered too liberal!


Ah, those were the good old days of public broadcasting. The money came almost entirely from private funding-mostly from the Ford Foundation. But NET's decidedly leftward tilt, with in-depth reports like The Poor Pay More and Appalachia: Rich Land, Poor People, made the investors nervous. The Fords stepped back and the Feds stepped in, creating the Corporation for Public Broadcasting with the ultimate aim of launching a network of its own, PBS. Under the circumstances, NET lasted only until 1970. The new PBS inherited none of NET's inflammatory reputation, but did walk off with Sesame Street and Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, two of NET's enduring crown jewels.

It's been more than 40 years, and every once in awhile folks in Washington, DC, get around to discussing whether or not the government should still be funneling $400 million-plus a year into Television (Note to anyone under 30: "Television" is that big box your parents stare at while you Tweet in the next room).


The debate in Washington around this time usually runs something like this:

DRUDGE REPORT GUY: Public broadcasting is a playground for liberal elites who are out of touch with real Americans!

HUFFINGTON POST GUY: You're trying to kill Big Bird!

DRUDGE REPORT GUY: Big Bird deserves to die!


The fact is, Big Bird earns so many millions of dollars in toy royalties every year, he's more likely to order you killed.


The political slant of PBS-or any other network-doesn't really bother me. I don't know about you, but I'm a big fan of radio and TV outlets that don't reflect my personal outlook. I mean, how boring is it to listen to people you agree with all the time? For conservatives, the late, liberal Air America should have been required listening. And ditto (pardon the expression) liberals and Big Daddy Rush Limbaugh's Excellence in Broadcasting Network.

Actually, I do have one beef with public broadcasting: Here in Washington, DC, the local commercial classical music station just couldn't compete with the University-run public station. So it went belly-up. The problem is, because it was seeking listeners for its advertisers, the commercial station played lots of classical Greatest Hits: William Tell Overture, Beethoven's Fifth, etc. The eggheads at the public station keep playing things like selections from the opera Engelberta by Antonio Bioni.


In some ways, public broadcasting is essential to my way of life: When I'm babysitting my grandkids, there's no better way to spend quality time with them at 6 a.m. on a Saturday than to usher them down to the TV room, turn on Curious George, and go back to sleep on the couch. On the other hand, I'm not sure I should be asking you to pay for me to grab some extra winks. Likewise, The New Yorker is my favorite magazine (right after AARP the Magazine, which pays my salary!), and National Geographic has been enriching my life for 50 years. Our cultural landscape would be a bit more barren were either one to go out of business, but I'm not about to ask the Treasury Department to cut either one a check.

The current debate will end up as it always does: Public Broadcasting's critics will have their say, and Big Bird will get several hundred million more dollars for birdseed. Everyone will have participated in the process, and in that process everyone will profess to be big fans of moderation.

For a day or two, they may even actually try and practice it.

Search AARP Blogs