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Bye-Bye, Bert and Ernie?

[whitespace] James Ledbetter
Tubular Vision: James Ledbetter peers into the future of public broadcasting and sees changes aplenty in his new book, 'Made Possible By ... '

'Made Possible By' argues that educational TV is a waste of money

By Michael Learmonth

IN HIS NEW BOOK, Made Possible By ... The Death of Public Broadcasting in the United States, James Ledbetter quotes an unnamed Northwestern University researcher on a 1970 study on the value of Sesame Street: "The amount of learning gain was quite small. Kids who watched for a season gained about two letters of the alphabet."

Well, it's been 23 years since I've watched any Sesame Street, and I can think of two important lessons I learned right off the top of my head. Ernie felt bad after he'd pilfered Bert's nose, and Bert explained to Ernie it's simply not nice to poke. Ergo, it's not nice to steal or tease.

Now, I must have watched Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood for at least 12 seasons. But even if I had learned just two letters a season, at least I wasn't watching one of the estimated 2,100 simulated murders American kids watch on TV before they're old enough to start school.

Overall, the academic's slight against Sesame Street is a relatively minor point in a fairly provocative book. Made Possible By ... delves into the history of public broadcasting, from its idealistic beginnings in 1967 through three turbulent decades into the 1990s, when it suffered its greatest threat from Congress and, Ledbetter argues, lost its idealism by caving in to corporate underwriters.

But the fact that a single quote stopped me in my tracks proves one of Ledbetter's stronger and more controversial points. There are few members of Congress, even the hardest-hearted budget hawks, who don't have a soft spot somewhere for Ernie and Bert. And if they don't, their kids do. It's no secret why in 1994, when PBS was on the congressional chopping block along with the Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Arts, Congresswoman Nita Lowey donned Ernie and Bert puppets to argue for continued funding.

Despite the popularity of Ernie and Bert, however, Ledbetter argues that educational programming--public TV's most sacred cow--should be cut. Its effectiveness is debatable, he argues, and the public interest would be better served with, say, a documentary about the pathetic state of public education.

"There is a singular perversity to a country where TV programs for preschool children have lavish budgets and multimillion-dollar marketing schemes," Ledbetter observes, "while urban schools suffer for lack of desks, classroom space--and sometimes even heat."

OBVIOUSLY, that's not a popular opinion with people who work in public TV. Tom Fanella, president of KTEH (Ch. 54), San Jose's PBS affiliate, responds to Ledbetter with barely restrained invective. "Do you suppose Mr. Ledbetter has children?" he asks. "The average American kid will see 10,000 hours of television before they go to school."

And what do preschoolers watch when they're at daycare? "Don't kid yourself," Fanella says. "They watch even more television!"

Although Ledbetter and Fanella could hardly be farther apart on Ernie and Bert, they would probably agree on the role Richard Nixon and his one-time speechwriter, Pat Buchanan, played in the changing role of public broadcasting.

Ledbetter points out that PBS was not born of some liberal plot to indoctrinate America. On the contrary, one of the strongest forces behind the establishment of a public broadcasting system in the Johnson Administration was the Department of Defense, which wanted the government to invest in a broadcast network along the lines of Radio Free Europe and Voice of America. Johnson appointed Frank Pace Jr., secretary of the army during the Korean War and a man with no broadcast experience, as the network's first president.

Johnson's control over the network's board of directors was tight, and Ledbetter speculates that if Johnson had won reelection, there would have been no critical coverage of the Vietnam War. But along came Nixon, and PBS earned its reputation as a liberal institution while the president and Buchanan led the first of many campaigns to eliminate the network.

PBS got the last laugh when it decided early on to carry the Senate hearings on Watergate "gavel-to-gavel," and for the first time, public-TV broadcasts received higher ratings than the commercial networks' prime-time coverage.

In the future, Ledbetter believes, a trust fund should be established for PBS in order to free it from the whims of Congress and corporate sponsors. It's another idea that doesn't sit well in the trenches; after at least 30 years in public television, there is no funding scheme Fanella hasn't heard before.

"Oh, he's one of those 'trust' guys," Fanella says before pointing out that the trust would have to be a whopping $5 billion to fund PBS at today's meager levels. Besides, according to Fanella, only $539,000 of his station's $8-million operating budget comes from PBS anyway. The rest is raised from sponsors and, as we've been told, "viewers like you."

It's understandable that public-TV types bristle at Ledbetter's analysis, but at a time when few can look beyond the chest-pounding in Congress about the very existence of public broadcasting, Made Possible By ... brings some interesting research and creative thinking to a debate that sorely needs it.

Made Possible By ... The Death of Public Broadcasting in the United States by James Ledbetter; Verso Books; $25 cloth.

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From the January 8-14, 1998 issue of Metro.

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