Don’t touch that public dial

Among all the perverse things going on in America, one of the worst may be that the destruction wrought by Katrina is being used by the neo-con-controlled Congress as an excuse to again try to slash funding for public broadcasting.

As the Grover Norquist crew — those who want to starve government until it’s “so small it can be drowned in a bathtub” (interesting image after Katrina, huh?) — ponders how to cover the estimated $200 billion to rebuild the Gulf Coast without reversing some of the Bush tax cuts, they are floating the idea of cutting federal funding for public broadcasting.

Now, since the entire CPB budget of $400 million is just a (excuse me) drop in the bucket relative to $200 billion (one-fifth of 1 percent), one can only conclude this is simply a disingenuous ploy to use a disaster to pursue an ideological agenda.

Opponents of federal funding for public broadcasting argue that programming comparable to PBS’s is available through commercial media. But they would be challenged to find anything resembling a new KET series anywhere on the commercial dial.

“The CommonHealth of Kentucky” is a 13-part series focusing on health care issues facing the state. It’s the first program of “Be Well Kentucky,” a new KET initiative whose objective is not only to help people improve health but also to portray the economic benefits of a healthier society.

The focus of “CommonHealth” is “Models that Work,” programs instituted in Kentucky that have been effective in improving health. The 13 episodes will cover access to health care, reducing obesity through nutrition and activity, smoking prevention and cessation, student health, surviving violence, addiction recovery, mental health and more. The series premieres Tuesday, Oct. 4 at 8 p.m. with an overview of the problems and a preview of the topics to be covered. It continues each Tuesday for 12 weeks, with multiple replays.

The program on health care access, the second show in the series, looks at activities in Leslie, Calloway, Lewis and Perry counties, where geography, economics and culture have conspired to make access to care difficult.

Besides the feature segments, each of the 30-minute broadcasts includes a discussion by a panel led by Dr. Wayne Tuckson, a Louisville surgeon, and including Larry Palmer, U of L Urban Health Policy chair; Gil Friedell, founder of the UK Markey Cancer Center; Rallie McAllister, workplace wellness expert and author; and Betty Holcomb, a Murray State professor and Kentucky’s “Nurse Practitioner of the Year.”

It would be hard to find six and a half hours of serious discussion of health issues anywhere on commercial TV, but that’s not the only thing that sets “CommonHealth” apart. “The series represents our commitment to coverage,” said Judy Flavell, executive producer of the series and KET’s director of outreach, “but it is the outreach around it that is unique.”
Reciting the all-too-depressing stats about Kentucky’s health care performance, Flavell said, “We want to give people the tools to do something about these problems, whether or not they are health care professionals.” KET will create Web sites to make the info available to citizens. “If a program in Boyd County can stop fourth and fifth graders from becoming smokers,” Flavell said, “why shouldn’t it work throughout Kentucky?”

The entire “Be Well Kentucky” initiative also involves efforts to develop momentum for leadership in solving the state’s health care problems. This Friday, for example, the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky — which promotes the “Models that Work” program — and Leadership Kentucky will sponsor the Kentucky Leadership Institute on Health in Louisville. The meeting is designed to identify and explain these most serious health issues and to stimulate a commitment to tackling them. The KET series will play a critical role in creating such an environment.

Since much of the conservative case against public broadcasting concerns a perception that the programming is “liberal,” I wondered if anything in the series could be portrayed as advancing a liberal agenda. Jayne McClew, who co-produced it with Deidre Clark, said that while the majority of the models look at underserved populations, “this is less about having the state fix things than giving communities the information and motivation to improve the health of their own people.”

McClew, a former reporter for WHAS-TV, spent nearly a year on the series, and she explained one of the major differences between public and commercial TV. “We would never have this much time to cover a subject in commercial television,” she said. “There would be no way to cover any issue this comprehensively.”

So check out “The CommonHealth of Kentucky,” and ask your favorite PBS critic where this type of information appears on a commercial channel.

Contact the writer at [email protected]