Who Should Pay for Big Bird and Downton Abbey?
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The Fiscal Times
November 27, 2012

Surprise! Federal spending rose 16 percent year-over-year in October, the first month of the new fiscal year. The deficit, now at $120 billion – was 22 percent higher than a year ago. This – in an era of spending cuts and fiscal restraint. It boggles the mind, but it’s no surprise. President Obama and his colleagues in Congress do not know how to cut spending. 

Taxpayers (and voters) don’t help. Polls indicate that Americans want our deficits and debt reduced. But when restraint lands close to home, few are willing to sacrifice popular government programs.

There is no better example of this hypocrisy than the hen fight over Mitt Romney’s proposal to defund public broadcasting. In response to Romney’s suggestion, which echoed the recommendation of the Simpson Bowles Commission, hysterical supporters proclaimed Big Bird an endangered species; the GOP contender was chastised for his “mean-spirited attack on our children.”  

Now that the feathers have settled, it’s time for a sane conversation about pouring hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars each year into an enterprise that can likely support itself, that primarily serves well off families, that has been outdated by the proliferation of programming available on air and online and that offers up what conservatives consider an unquestionably politically biased product. This latter issue is, however, beside the point.

The most compelling reason to unstick public broadcasting from federal flypaper comes directly from PBS and NPR supporters. These impassioned fans of Bill Moyers and Nina Totenberg point out that only 15 percent of the budget for public broadcasting comes from the federal government; the balance of their income stems from activities which include fund-raising, merchandise licensing, digital online advertising, and (gasp!) renting donor lists to direct marketers and corporate sponsors.

Advocates boast that for every federal dollar in their pocket, their boosters find five more. The obvious response to this: find a sixth! Every non-profit in the country has had to pull up its socks and become savvier fundraisers – so should our public radio and TV outfits. In 2007, the Government Accounting Office investigated whether in extremis public TV could supplant federal dollars with new funding sources. Based mainly on interviews with people who worked for public TV stations and for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), it found that it would be difficult.

But, the GAO also concluded that “the one area of growth potential is major gifts.” Another possibility was increased underwriting from foundations and corporations. In other words, a little elbow grease could make up for the loss of taxpayer funding. Ira Glass, an NPR talk show host, recently said, “When the Republicans say that public radio would survive without that money, the truth is, they’re right, it would survive.”

Supporters ridicule the notion that ejecting NPR and PBS from the public trough is justified by our nation’s budget woes. They rightly point out that the $445 million requested by CPB for fiscal 2015 is but a drop in the trillion-dollar deficit bucket. But we have to lower spending somewhere -- surely feeding hungry children tops filming “America Quilts.” Moreover, we need to force tough decisions on our legislators, whose idea of belt tightening means punching three more holes in the belt and only using two. Remember how spending soared 16 percent in October?

After more than two decades on Wall Street as a top-ranked research analyst, Liz Peek became a columnist and political analyst. Aside from The Fiscal Times, she writes for FoxNews.com, The New York Sun and Women on the Web.