Big Bird, Kermit, Bert and Ernie, The Count, and other Sesame Street regulars this week celebrate 30 years of introducing American preschoolers to letters, numbers, words, and tunes.
Their relationship with children goes to the heart of the Public Broadcasting System's original mandate - to educate and enlighten viewers. Public broadcasting was conceived to stand in sharp contrast to the commercial networks - to what former Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton Minow called the "vast wasteland" in 1961.
Critiques like Minow's eventually led to passage of the Public Broadcasting Act in 1967 and establishment of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) to head the system and coordinate its funding.
Public broadcasting, like Sesame Street itself, has evolved over the decades. The part of that evolution getting the most attention right now concerns, not surprisingly, money. The recent flap over PBS stations trading or selling their donor lists is, perhaps, the smallest part of the controversy - though it continues a debate that has dogged public broadcasting since its beginning, whether it leans to the left politically.
The only political entity to receive the donor lists was the Democratic Party. The bigger issue is whether, as some critics to the right and left assert, PBS is abandoning its roots, as exemplified by excellent children's programs, in-depth news shows, superb drama - all, of course, "commercial-free."
The distance between the intrusive, constant commercials on the other channels and the acknowledgments given private underwriters on PBS has clearly narrowed. Those heartfelt-sounding notes of corporate virtue are longer and more lushly produced. They do, however, pop up only at the beginning or end of shows. If they ever surface in the middle, viewers can reasonably begin to wonder what they're getting for their tax and pledge dollars.
The value of a reliable, high quality alternative to the profit-driven fare of commercial broadcasting may be higher than ever in today's media free-for-all, with cable, satellite, and digital technologies transforming what comes into our living rooms. For most Americans, the tax dollars going to CPB, $250 million this year, is money well spent. It accounts for only 14 percent of the yearly operating revenue for public television and radio. The rest comes from corporate and foundation grants, and from viewers.
Ideas are rattling around for other ways to pay for noncommercial broadcasting, notably a public trust fund that wouldn't be dependent on a yearly appropriation from Congress. That's worth considering. But insulating public broadcasting a bit from the political arena wouldn't lessen its need to retain the confidence of the public in whose name it operates.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society