Justifying PBS

February 6, 2008
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President Bush’s proposed budget features significant cuts to public broadcasting: 2009’s allocation goes from $400 million to $200 million. And 2010’s drops from $420 million to $200  million. More details here.

Public broadcasting certainly had an easier time justifying itself in the days when it was the only place to find quality children’s educational programming—and when it was the primary means by which cultural programming entered American homes.

I’ll confess that, when asked, I have trouble making a convincing case that PBS needs to be a vital part of the government budget. Its own fact sheet doesn’t make a very convincing case.

The cynic in me asks: If enough people want British sitcoms and ballroom dance competitions, wouldn’t some cable channel pick up the slack?

On the other hand, as with most cultural funding, what it’s asking for is a relatively small amount of money, especially when government waste is as high as it is.

Besides, I’m part of the original “Sesame Street” generation. It’s difficult to imagine life without PBS. (And, selfishly, I’m looking forward to the February “Great Performances” broadcast of the recent Broadway revival of the musical “Company.”)

So I’m sitting here on the fence, waiting for someone’s arguments to tip me either way.

Your thoughts?
  • Yes, it would be difficult to imagine life without PBS.

    Some may argue that PBS should survive or die on the basis of the market. Well, have you seen what is available on broadcast and cable TV lately?

    Commercial interests are based on appealing to the masses, which in most cases is dumbing down to a 12 year old pre-teen mentality which seems most TV shows are geared to appeal.

    Even more mainstream arts channels (i.e., A&E, Bravo, Discovery...etc) have resorted to the usual tacky reality based programming.

    Sure you can find some obscure cultural channels that are available in a speciality tier cable package which you find are really re-hashed PBS programs. So you pay more and don't get much more than what is free on PBS.

    In the end, it is a good investment for actually a small amount of money. ($400M is about $1 per person in the USA.)

    Just my 2 cents. Thanks.
  • PBS never ceases to amaze me--I watched a Frontline special last night not because there was nothing else on (which, for someone who doesn't have cable, happens from time to time) but because I was engrossed and felt just a little smarter for learning something about foundries.

    On another night recently, I learned about the doctor who started lobotomies (and overheard a few coworkers discuss it and had a coworker say she wished she caught it). A few weeks ago I learned about Jewish culture in New York at the turn of the century.

    Plus I'm a real sucker for the kids programming (again, not everyone has cable in their homes), Antiques Roadshow, and countless stage performances that only PBS airs. And the best part is truly that it's commercial free so shows like Frontline don't have to worry about upsetting their advertisers (maybe their sponsors, but that's a different story...). And I'd bet it's more of a community player in terms of raising awareness on certain issues and getting the word out on community events than most local network channels.

    OK, PBS-promoting over now. But for us non-cable subscribers it really is the best channel on the air.
  • My opinion is it is worth more than Bush is giving it. There used to be a time when broadcasters took their value to the community more seriously. The FCC licenses require a broadcaster to operate in the public interest. Of course they don't do that anymore.

    The burden to supporting Public Television and Radio is going to start to fall back on the community that finds it valuable. I do. George doesn't. I wish the FCC would fulfill their mandate. They won't.

    Looks like I'll have to plan on an increase to my donation.
  • I had longer comments, but they were accidentally obliterated by an improper protection code.

    Without public broadcasting, the general public is denied an independent, in-depth information source that's available free of charge (as long as you have a TV). PBS doesn't have to put on a constant fireworks show to keep the attention of channel surfers until the commercial comes on and their sponsors can sell something to the viewers. Consequently, they can offer thorough treatments of the information and entertainment they present. As reading becomes less and less popular, it's more important than ever to make television available that doesn't pander, preach, or peddle. (Fund drives are another story.)
  • Woah! As reading becomes less and less popular...??? Brian, no offense, but what are you talking about?! That is just an opinion, not a fact. For every study one might pull that shows that people are reading less, there is another one that shows that people are reading more.

    But that's probably a topic for another post.

    I don't have a strong opinion about PBS since I rarely watch TV, but I lean to the side of it is worth paying for for the reasons already given.

    I do, however, have a strong opinion about National Public Radio: I love it. It is the only thing I listen to in the car any more, and I spend a lot of hours per week on the road. If we cut funding for public television, will cutting funding for NPR be next? I hope not!

    Hope Baugh
  • Hah! (laughing sheepishly at my own ignorance)

    This blog conversation prompted me to go look at the NPR website (http://www.npr.org/about/.) It says NPR is privately funded. Who knew?

    So... maybe PBS should be privately funded, too. But it still feels wrong to say that. Maybe NPR should receive some of my taxes!

    In any case, I am definitely going to make my own financial contribution to NPR now.

    As always, Lou (and Brian and other readers) - Thanks for the good food for thought!

    Hope Baugh
  • I'll just give one example of what would happen without PBS. Recently the ISO did a fantastic program where the opning night 1913 riot of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring was recreated. Dance Kaleidoscope was able to reproduce a facsimile of the original Nijinsky choreography because PBS made a video in the 1980's of a reconstruction by the Joffrey Ballet. Because we had access to this incredibly valuable source material, the project was succesfully accomplished. Without the efforts of PBS and other like minded entities, our (the world's) cultural heritage, like the Antarctic ice is in danger of disappearing without a trace.
  • Thank you all for the insight. Further thoughts are most welcome.
  • I did have one other thought, even before I read David Hochoy's important addition:

    Just because I rarely watch TV myself, does not necessarily mean that I do not want part of my taxes to go towards public television.

    At 46, I am never going to have children, either, but I am more than happy to help support public schools. I maintain my own home computer and I buy lots of books and DVDs for myself, but I am more than happy to help support public libraries.

    I work hard for a living, I pay attention to how much the government taxes me, and I want value in return for my money, but I am also happy to do my part to help pay for the public good.
  • I have cable and still I sometimes watch PBS. I love Antiques Roadshow and recently have been watching Masterpiece Theatre's Jane Austen series. I was inspired to re-read Austen novels I hadn't read in awhile, and I can only imagine it inspired people to actually read her books for the first time. As to funding... I'm wavering a bit like you Lou, but it seems we spend much more money on much less valuable things than PBS. I grew up with Sesame Street and the Electric Company and can't even begin to imagine what a positive inpact those shows had on my early development. I would rather see other things cut from the budget first before PBS loses it's money.
  • With very few exceptions, commercial television and radio are such vast wastelands of mediocrity and idiocy--not to mention unreal reality and, as Jerry Rubin used to say, bubblegum for the mind--PBS is the only oasis in the desert. If PBS goes away, I will have no use for my car radio and little use for my television, with the exception of watching sports and a movie now and again. PBS is the only source of brain food on the airwaves and through the cable. If it goes away, we all lose. Thanks for listening.
  • As a HUGE fan of Frontline, I wonder how the decrease in funding will affect that show and others on PBS.

    To piggyback on Hope's comment, would it be feasible for PBS to adopt a private funding model similar to NPR?

    Per NPR's Web site:
    NPR supports its operations through a combination of membership dues and programming fees from over 860 independent radio stations, sponsorship from private foundations and corporations, and revenue from the sales of transcripts, books, CDs, and merchandise. A very small percentage -- between one percent to two percent of NPR's annual budget -- comes from competitive grants sought by NPR from federally funded organizations, such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.
  • I don't watch PBS very often, but I still believe government funding is appropriate and necessary for the betterment of the country...however, I was MORE surprised about other parts of Bush's proposed budget. Specifically, the U.S. Department of Education's Arts in Ed budget being COMPLETELY cut: $35.3 million to $0.

    I don't know a remedy, or the rationale behind arts funding when it comes to government support, but I think a more collaborative effort between public funding and private funding would keep the arts in a safer situation, both nationally and locally. (I also agree with Andrea's comment about the funding structure of NPR).
  • CC, everyone knows what the remedy is. Hopefully the remedy will be taking office January 2009...
  • With all due respect Sophia, the remedy will not be taking office in January 2009. Government is not the answer. The answer is for each person who claims to love PBS and NPR to make a donation. If you're afraid it will go away, then do something about it! Run, do not walk, to www.wfyi.org and click on pledge online in the upper right hand corner. Do it. It feels good. Skip those lattes for a month. Have cereal night instead of going out to dinner. Go to the library rather than buying that book. Whatever it takes to generate an offering to support programming you enjoy.

    Let's cut the nanny-state nonsense that it's governments job to provide for us.
  • Chris,

    You are so right. While in a perfect world, we could get someone else to take this burden for us (the government), it is not the intent for that to happen. While there maybe many issues to criticize the President for, this is not one. On the other hand, all of us whom appreciate and love this medium, how else would we have been introduced to such uplifiting entertainers as Celtic Woman, Lorie Line, Anuna, and the list goes on. Bottom line - it's up to us to keep it going!
  • CPB's annual appropriation does not go to either PBS or NPR, but to the local public broadcasting stations. CPB use the Annual Financial Report from each station to insert data into a formula which gives each station its proportional share based on its local, or non-federal revenue support. So, the more member support a station has the more its share will go up from CPB. Last year, we received for TV and Radio $1,200,000.

    The stations in turn use this money to support their operations. The annual grant from CPB will generally be about the same amount a station spends to acquire programming. Last year, we spent $1,600,000 on acquired programming. Most of this went to PBS and NPR. Neither get federal funds directly from the Government.

    In addition to buying programming from PBS and NPR, as wells as BBC, PRI, APTS, APM, NETA, Welk, and others, including other public broadcasting stations that produce programming, we also produce a wealth of our programming for TV and Radio, some mentioned above.

    The direct production costs - without station personnel - ran $645,000 last year.

    The shortfall between what the Federal Governmnet send our way via grants from CPB and what we pay to buy and produce programming is made up by the local community.

    Last year, individuals were 34%, corporations were 31%, foundations and other not-for-profits were 14%, state government was 4%, colleges and universities were 3%, local government was 2%, and the Federal Government was 12%. Bear in mind that the federal money lost its identity as money direct from the federal government when it washed through CPB, a not-for-profit.

    its also important to note that CPB, PBS, and NPR also have non-federal revenue streams that contribute to the total budget for those entities, but the Federal money is the highest for CPB.

    So, by the time PBS and NPR get their money from the public stations, it is twice removed from the Federal Government.

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