Who Should Pay for Big Bird and Downton Abbey?

Who Should Pay for Big Bird and Downton Abbey?


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each year into an enterprise that can likely support itself, that primarily serves well off families, that has been outdated by the proliferation of programming available on air and online and that offers up what conservatives consider an unquestionably politically biased product.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?

It’s not only the federal government that is underwriting public broadcasting. Eric Langner, representing Public Radio Capital, a non-profit that provides consulting to public broadcasters, says that two-thirds of public stations are owned by colleges and universities and that most lose money.  As schools face budget issues of their own, many are rethinking their ownership of public stations and some are considering selling. This should provoke consolidation in the industry, which currently harbors considerable redundancy. It should also allow for restructuring, thus reducing costs – and the need for government funding.

Another reason to cut funding to CPB is that the mission of public broadcasting has been outdated by the proliferation of entertainment and news product available through cable TV and the internet. When CPB was created in 1967, there were only four TV stations; listener and viewer choices were limited. No one can argue that case today. They can argue that quality arts programs featuring classical music or ballet are not commercially viable.

They may also argue the merits of broadcasting programs in Somali and Hmong languages to a tiny and otherwise neglected audience, as Twin Cities Public TV does. Still, if there is public backing for such undertakings, monies can and should be raised from foundations and corporations. To argue that taxpayers should support unpopular programs directed at small audiences – a cultural bridge to nowhere -- makes no sense.

The mission erosion continues in terms of the audience served by public TV. While kids living in poverty may well tune in to watch Sesame Street – a program that absolutely can stand on its own -- the reality is that public TV’s audience is relatively wealthy and highly educated. According to a 2009 GfK Roper Public Affairs & Media survey, 73 percent of PBS viewers have an annual income above $73,000 and are homeowners. The average viewer is four times more likely to havea graduate degree.

If those numbers don’t convince you: NPR recently offered listeners a free travel mug for those who penned the best haiku endorsing the radio group. These folks -- who actually know what haiku is -- can support the high-brow radio and TV they so enjoy. Better yet, the demographics argue for increased corporate sponsorship. The same survey concluded that viewers “feel that companies that support public television have a commitment to quality and excellence… (and) would choose to buy a product from a company that supports public television, all other things being equal.”

Some conservatives want public broadcasting defunded because they charge that programming on NPR and PBS exhibits a liberal bias. Tim Graham, who wrote a blog last year for the right-leaning Media Research Center describing the top 20 liberal outrages aired on PBS, notes that the NPR and PBS audiences are generally “appalled by the profit motive and have elitist tastes.” However, he notes that the case for defunding does not rest on content. Instead, it should rely on an inefficient and unnecessary use of taxpayer monies. 

He’s completely correct.