Why would the right defund? For a tiny investment–about a hundredth of a penny from each federal dollar–the GOP gets a leash on public broadcasting that ensures that it will never fulfill its promise to serve as a real alternative to the commercial networks.
As long as public broadcasters are forced to go before Congress, hat in hand, to beg for another annual appropriation, their leaders will make sure not to do anything that will put them on the Republicans' "naughty" list–keeping PBS safe, bland and right-of-center, rather than the home for experiment, controversy and the unheard opinion that noncommercial TV was envisioned to be.
PBS's progressive friends, on the other hand, do it no favors by reflexively rallying around it, holding up Big Bird as the emblem of public TV at its most innocuous. Sure, Sesame Street is great–but if that's all we demand of PBS, that it continue to teach children their ABCs and how to share, that's all it's going to give us. The familiar cycle of threats from the right and unconditional support from the left guarantees a public broadcasting system that increasingly toes the establishment line.
What really needs saving is PBS's soul. We should insist that it live up its founding mission statement that it would "help us see America whole, in all its diversity," and present the pro-consumer, pro-worker, pro-environment perspectives that corporate advertisers are never going to subsidize.
To play the role that it's meant to, public broadcasting needs public money. But it has to be money it can count on, from a dedicated revenue stream (like the BBC's TV license fees) or, better yet, a permanent, independent trust fund that would insulate programming from Washington's political games.
With the status quo, PBS's funding is a political lever–one that conservatives are all too eager to pull. We don't need to cut PBS's funding–we just need to take the controls out of politicians' hands.