Sesame Street's Private Road

Imagine a television landscape that offered, for example, the Newshour with Jim Lehrer on the Discovery Channel, Sesame Street on Nickelodeon, Frontline on the History Channel, and Masterpiece Theater and Mystery! on Bravo. And put those wonderful BBC comedies, on, well, BBC America, or even ABC. Not too far-fetched, is it?

There was a time when such staples of public broadcasting were more unusual than they are in today's saturated media environment. And now that cable and satellite programs, such as those on Discovery, Animal Planet, and the like, reach some 85 percent of American households, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) just isn't really all that distinctive anymore.

In fact, its ratings began dropping in the 1990s, as cable and satellite TV spread. And it's no secret that the 349 stations that support PBS have been struggling with their identity and niche in the media marketplace as a result.

Even though PBS brags that it's commercial-free, in recent years, more and more commercial-like promotional spots have appeared - many even arguably crossing the line between corporate support and outright advertising.

Is it time for this successful nonprofit institution to go fully private? (It now depends on federal funds for 15.3 percent of its budget.)

One suggestion: Have PBS run its own cable channel with no tax dollars, if its locally owned affiliates agree.

Or it could be allowed to simply sell ads and become a nonprofit network, available for free.

The country's increasingly polarized political climate has put more pressure on PBS's programming decisions. Wouldn't it be better if government simply weren't involved? Then market pressures alone could decide what programming was worthwhile - and whether it was too liberal, or conservative - free from political pressure. And those who disagree with perceived or real bias in programming could no longer complain that their taxpayer dollars were subsidizing viewpoints other than their own.

A new PBS "Frontline" documentary, airing this week, helps prove the point. In "The New Asylums," producers take a much-needed look at the half million individuals with mental illness locked up inside the US prison system. But in a way, that's investigating government - with government money. Surely, those journalists and producers who work for PBS would appreciate having the independence to criticize the government when needed, without fear of political retribution.

A PBS that no longer depends on government dollars wouldn't have to lose its stated mission - "to inform, inspire, and educate." And it could still run public fundraisers (members fund about 26 percent of PBS's budget).

PBS has served as a capable hatchery of ideas that have subsequently flown into the public realm. Let it now serve as an example of a public institution that's served its original purpose, and simply must evolve.

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