During his recent debate with President Barack Obama, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said he would propose eliminating federal support for the Public Broadcasting Service. Romney said that in challenging times for the federal budget, such support is no longer practical. U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, a Baton Rouge Republican, said he also supports eliminating federal funding for public broadcasting.
This newspaper is owned by a media company that also includes a commercial broadcast station. We believe in the promise of commercial television, but we also know that there are some forms of programming the marketplace cannot easily support. That’s why public broadcasting was born, and that’s why public television has continuing relevance in the 21st century.
Romney mentioned his personal affection for Big Bird, the beloved “Sesame Street” character that’s been a staple on PBS stations for years. But Sherrie Westin, a “Sesame Street” executive, said the show gets very little funding through PBS. Instead, the children’s show is supported mostly through corporate sponsorships, product sales and donations.
So, Big Bird might survive under Romney’s vision of public broadcasting. But other pubic television shows, such as “Frontline” and “Antiques Roadshow,” might not fare so well if federal support for PBS were reduced or eliminated.
Rural stations depend more heavily on PBS for support. Without federal funding, many of those stations would probably go off the air, diminishing the reach of public television’s educational programs. In a nation that desperately needs to expand educational opportunities for its citizens, public television is a vital source of knowledge. Gutting support for public television would save a negligible amount of money in the federal budget, but America would be much poorer if PBS weren’t around.
Why do we need PBS when hundreds of commercial TV channels are flourishing, and the Internet promises a wealth of information with the click of a mouse? We need PBS in a commercial media universe for the same reason that we need public libraries in the same communities as bookstores — to nurture ideas that, while useful to our democracy, are seldom going to make a cash register ring.
We’ve seen what happens when so-called “educational” commercial channels emerge to offer instruction in history or science. All too often, in the search for ratings, they resort to gimmicky “reality” shows and dubious assertions to appeal to the mass market.
The public television model, which depends on a mix of viewer contributions, corporate underwriting and modest government support, gives programmers the latitude they need to create shows in which education remains the primary goal.
If government has a role in supporting schools and universities, then it certainly has a role in supporting educational television, which is an effective and economical way to spread learning. We would also like to think that political conservatives, the most frequent critics of federal support for public TV, would have a natural sympathy with the wholesome, family-friendly programming that dominates public TV’s prime-time schedule.
In 2011, the federal government spent about $430 million to support the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, an agency that directs funds to PBS, National Public Radio and various other stations and programs connected with public broadcasting. That amounted to .00012 percent of the federal budget last year. Eliminating federal funding for public TV would have almost no impact on the federal budget, but it would have severe consequences for those who are committed to using television as a light of learning.
Proposals to reduce or eliminate federal funding for public television are a distraction from the real challenges of the federal budget deficit, which are more deeply connected to big-ticket programs such as Medicare.
That’s where the debate about the direction of the federal budget should focus, not on Big Bird.