A generation ago, several fledgling cable networks proffered the premise, if not the promise, of being both entertaining and enlightening.
And for awhile they were.
Shows on A&E evoked its Arts and Entertainment name, as did shows on Bravo, named after accolades for fine arts performances.
TLC proudly espoused its educational mission as The Learning Channel. Animal Planet and Discovery did the same by using programming to promote interest in the natural world, and viewers could time travel via the History Channel.
From history to current events, context could be found on CNN, which was widely derided at its inception but soon grew into a solid, even stolid source of global news.
Things are different now.
Sure, these networks still entertain. But the goal of enlightenment seems to have dimmed.
Among A&E’s most notable shows is “Duck Dynasty,” and Bravo has called “curtains!” on the theater and now hews to Shakespeare’s “all the world’s a stage” ethos with the “Real Housewives” franchise as well as other reality shows.
TLC seems an anachronistic acronym since there seems to considerably less learning and more lurking around the lives of the subjects of “Sister Wives,” “Tattoo Girls” and “My 600-lb Life.”
History has channeled the histrionics of reality TV, too, with shows like “Pawn Stars” and “Swamp People.”
Discovery has downplayed the natural world for “Naked and Afraid,” “Diesel Brothers” and other reality shows, and Animal Planet’s lineup now includes “Finding Bigfoot.”
And while CNN is on a ratings roll and is still the first place many turn for breaking news, it’s part of a broken model of cable news that puts a premium on punditry over reporting.
Conversely, for more than 40 years PBS has remained remarkably true to its mission while remaining modern in its programming and presentation.
The network features fine arts — in fact it celebrates them in theatrical, music, dance and other prime-time performances broadcast for any American anywhere to watch.
And its enduring educational mission — especially with kids — is seen on “Sesame Street,” just one of its many avenues to teach children during their key development years.
Lifelong learners are rewarded, too, in science series like “Nova,” nature shows like, well, “Nature,” and with landmark events such as Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” and other definitive documentaries. Even more historical exploration is seen on shows like “The American Experience.”
True, PBS has its own version of reality TV. But it’s the award-winning “Frontline,” the best documentary program — or often just the best program — on television. Anyone who has seen that searing series know that it’s not an eat-your-peas program.
But just to make sure viewers get dessert, “Downton Abbey,” “Sherlock” and other popular programs have become part of the national cultural conversation in recent years, too.
And most notably at a time when the press reflects, and sometimes creates, a deeply divided society, the “PBS NewsHour” is a modern marvel of old-school integrity and civility that downplays pundits and sound bites for experts and extensive reporting on truly consequential issues.
The “NewsHour” doesn’t deserve the liberal label conservatives have tried to tie on the program. It often pairs politicians from each party for a polite but pointed debate on an issue, but more importantly it reaches out to nonpartisan scholars and experts who shed more light than heat, which makes them scarce on CNN, Fox News or MSNBC.
This kind of responsible approach to news — and to TV in general — is a force for good in America. So it’s particularly disappointing that President Trump’s proposed budget calls for the elimination of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which provides some — but certainly not all — of the funding for PBS and National Public Radio.
Some conservatives concerned about federal spending on CPB have often argued that cable could fill any void created by the cutting of funding to PBS. But today’s cable lineup is evidence that it wouldn’t. Indeed, the public’s investment in PBS gives the network an added mandate to program in the public’s, not just marketers’, best interest.
And advocates of public media point out that those stations hit hardest wouldn’t be in big cities, but rural areas where stations depend on a higher proportion of taxpayer funding. So what now exists as an egalitarian service could devolve into yet another manifestation of the urban-rural, red-blue divide that’s fraying America’s social fabric.
Justifying the cuts, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said, “Can we really continue to ask a coal miner in West Virginia or a single mom in Detroit to pay for these programs?”
That’s the kind of condescension conservatives often accuse liberals of. Working-class citizens should be able to enjoy enlightened TV like anyone else.
CPB supporters focus on a fiscal figure — $1.35 per U.S. citizen, per year — to fund CPB.
That’s a value.
And because a budget is really a reflection of values, citizens and Congress should rally around investing in the invaluable virtues of public media.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.