‘Keep your gov’t hands off my PBS!’

Some still fuzzy on the debate's details

Liberals had a field day with the image of an elderly woman at a health-care forum shouting, “Keep your government hands off my Medicare.” The outburst underscored the perception that while Tea Party activists are angry, some are a little fuzzy on the debate’s details and thus how to direct it.

Conservatives, however, may find themselves in a similar line of fire, with people in the same retirement-age demographic yelling, “Keep your government hands off my public TV and radio!”

Republicans — having long since bought into the notion public television is a steaming bastion of left-wing propaganda — have targeted the Corp. for Public Broadcasting among the entities to be eliminated in their quest to streamline government.

If that sounds familiar, it should, since this same threat has arisen with sporadic regularity over the last 20 years, the thought being that anything more moderate than Rush Limbaugh is unworthy of government funding. And while Republicans have insisted the issue isn’t about ideology — in 2005, Ohio Rep. Ralph Regula characterized funding of public broadcasting as “somewhere between a ‘need-to-do’ and a ‘nice-to-do'” priority — there’s no denying politics has played a part. Newt Gingrich sought to “zero out” PBS in the mid-1990s, and Bush appointee Ken Tomlinson became chairman of CPB in 2003, creating a chill by seeking to ferret out “liberal bias.”

PBS and National Public Radio may finally fall victim to the executioner’s ax, but don’t be so certain of that. Because despite the right’s drumbeat, older people who wield inordinate power in elections by voting in disproportionate numbers — the ones who keep Social Security and Medicare cuts at bay — are also overrepresented in the public broadcasting audience.

It’s not twentysomethings watching “Masterpiece” and “Frontline” but their parents and grandparents. A stellar production like the recent early-20th-century miniseries “Downton Abbey” connects directly with them.

Granted, the need for public TV has appeared to ebb in a digital world of proliferating channels. Commercial alternatives — from Discovery to BBC America — offer ambitious documentary programming and British dramas that were once PBS’ exclusive province.

Public TV officials have long acknowledged they perform best at the demographic poles — reaching the very young, who watch “Sesame Street” and its ilk, and the old, drawn to Ken Burns’ documentaries, “Nature” or “Antiques Roadshow.” Efforts to broaden that reach — including initiatives former CEO Pat Mitchell pushed — have yielded at best mixed results.

Americans are funny, politically speaking. It seems the only thing they hate as much as higher taxes is reduced government services — without recognizing the contradiction. As the New York Times’ Paul Krugman put it, “They only want to cut spending on other people.”

In tough economic times — with concerns about federal debt and states contemplating bankruptcy — the argument for sustaining PBS would appear highly vulnerable amid proposed cuts to areas like the Environmental Protection Agency and aid to low-income families.

Nearly a decade ago, Mitchell said to be “vital and viable, (PBS is) going to have to embrace some changes.” Toward that end, underwriting promos are now so elaborate that the term “commercial-free” is no longer quite accurate.

PBS has weathered assaults going back to the Nixon administration, as American U. School of Communication professor Patricia Aufderheide told American Prospect in 2005, for a simple reason: “What has saved public television … has been the broad support of American viewers, many of whom are conservative but who like ‘quality television,’ or don’t want ‘Masterpiece Theater’ taken away, or like ‘Nova,’ or like ‘Big Bird.'”

Echoing this point, The Writers Guild of America East — citing the 21,000 jobs public broadcasting creates — issued a “Save PBS” statement saying, “No one wants to read the headline, ‘Congress to Big Bird: “Drop Dead.”‘ And Burns insisted the issue is nonpartisan, calling public media more critical than ever “when traditional journalism institutions are collapsing and electronic news divisions are increasingly all talk or all entertainment.”

The bottom line is many older people (and a few less consequential young ones) like PBS, and there isn’t much on TV aimed at them. If public broadcasting can inspire them to vocalize those sentiments, then it just might survive the latest GOP “death panel” determined to pull the plug on some of grandma’s favorite programs.

Want to comment or suggest a column topic?Email brian.lowry@variety.com