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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

The importance of Big Bird

Published: October 12, 2012
Section: Opinions, Top Stories

Before last week, I hadn’t thought about Big Bird in a long time. In fact, PBS only recently reclaimed its spot in my consciousness when I needed to get my dose of English drama with Downton Abbey this past summer.

There are many reasons why we should continue to value government funded television stations and programs. One only needs to look at TLC to understand why it is that Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s flippant remark at the Presidential debate last week about eliminating the funding for PBS is problematic.

On Monday, Buzzfeed published a quick photo-filled article about the origins of TLC. Apparently, TLC was funded in 1972 through a joint project between the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and NASA. It was created to be a channel that provided instructional and informational television shows in an effort to provide real education via television. When the channel was privatized in 1980, it continued to focus on educational content; however, the 90s saw a big shift in the selection of programs that TLC chose to broadcast.

Shows like Ready Set Learn and PaleoWorld became extinct as Trading Spaces became the new hit show. TLC’s broadcasting of meaningful content has only dwindled further with the onset of shows like “Honey BooBoo Child” and “Hoarders.” These frightening shows exploit those in our community who are odd, or suffer from a disorder or a rare medical condition. This exploitation is epitomized with the TLC show “Abbey and Brittany,” which follows the lives of conjoined twins. I am not claiming that the privatization of TV includes the degradation of content, but it is clear that there is a correlation between the absence of government funded TV and shows like “My Strange Addiction.”

As college students who rely on TV to fill the time between classes or relax after a difficult day, we should recognize the important role that government sponsored television plays in our lives. Most of our generation grew up with Oscar, Cookie Monster and Big Bird. Whether we knew it or not, we were reliant on the government to help fund the TV show that taught us our 1-2-3s and the importance of sharing. And although Mitt Romney didn’t pick Arthur to single out in the debate, PBS is also the home of our favorite animal friends who love to read.

I may have aged out of PBS programming in the late 90s, but it is home to many shows that appeal to a wide demographic, not just “PBS Kids.” PBS has so many shows, in fact, that due to the sheer number of them, I wasn’t able to count them all when I looked at the PBS website. I will freely admit to leaving PBS behind as I grew up. As I aged I associated PBS with childhood and didn’t continue to support the channel with my viewership. After looking into the TV shows that PBS runs, I may have made a hasty mistake in discontinuing my viewership. Yes, there are the educational programs that I absolutely would not watch, such as “Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State” and “Crucible of Empire: The Spanish-American War.” But PBS also has expositions on favorite American musicians and actors like Eartha Kitt and Bob Dylan. Most notably, PBS hosted Julia Child’s famous cooking show.

On its website, PBS unashamedly refers to itself as “America’s largest classroom, the nation’s largest stage for the arts and a trusted window to the world.” With that image in mind, in a day and age in which public school funding is being cut, thus creating larger classes for teachers and less individualized attention, it is hard to understand why Mitt Romney (or anyone) would fail to see the importance of allowing a channel that in its mission statement proclaims that its “educational media helps prepare children for success in school and opens up the world to them in an age-appropriate way.”

According to A.C. Nielson Company, a global marketing research firm, 99 percent of households in America possess at least one TV. In an average American household, the TV is on for approximately six hours and 45 minutes a day. Even more horrifying is that this research discovered that “the average child will watch 800 murders on TV before finishing elementary school.” If PBS is turned on for even an hour or two during this time, not only would that household receive knowledgeable content, but they would perhaps prevent the children in that home from seeing the gratuitous violence that fills our television sets today.

There are many reasons why we should support PBS. As we grow older, graduate from Brandeis, pursue other degrees or possibly get married and have children, don’t we want our children and grandchildren to be exposed to the same impactful programs that we saw when we were children? With the amount of time that Americans spend watching TV, we should embrace and support the channel that provides us with educational programming—not cut funding in a misguided and futile attempt to balance the budget.