Giving PBS the Bird

Posted by Tim Mikulski, Oct 04, 2012 3 comments

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Well, you had to have known this post was coming after seeing the debate last night, reading about it, or catching the highlights on the news.

Also, I can't believe I'm blogging about Sesame Street for the second time in six weeks.

As a political scientist by schooling, I had to wonder who on the campaign decided it would be funny, smart, or a good idea to throw in something quippy about firing Big Bird or Jim Lehrer when once again referring to a policy of not borrowing money from China to pay for PBS (or the National Endowment for the Arts as was mentioned in a magazine article a few months ago).

First, you automatically make a ton of enemies by putting the image of Big Bird being evicted out of his Sesame Street nest in people's heads.

Second, you are simply catering to hardcore fiscal conservatives who don't seem to understand that public television was only allocated $75 million from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in the FY 2012 budget (plus about $222 million in direct grants to individual public television stations)—that's it. Guess how much was spent on national defense ($716 billion), health ($361 billion), and energy ($23 billion).

Some would argue that PBS stations should start airing commercials to generate more revenue or that there could be stations that cover more than one city or combine into regional networks. Okay, I can give you that, but that still doesn't take away from the fact that the small amount of federal spending goes such a long way to help PBS leverage those pledge drive (without quality programs partially funded by the government would people still pay?) or corporate dollars.

Others say we should just privatize all PBS stations. You might want to ask folks in New Jersey if they feel their NJTV lives up to the formerly state-run NJN when it comes to covering the affairs of a state trapped between two giant media markets with no other statewide network.

Oh and then there's Kansas. Remember when someone tried to privatize the state arts agency claiming that it could and should run without government support? That didn't turn out so well.

Even more argue that Sesame Street must make a ton of money on licensing, etc. so why doesn't the Sesame Workshop give more money to PBS?

Well, according to their website, the 501(c)3 organization is funded via corporate, foundation, and government support (35%); distribution fees and royalties (32%); and, product licensing (33%). The organization ran at a net loss of about $9 million according to their 2009 Annual Report. That means they run a lean, tight ship with just about 290 total staff members doing everything from operating a Muppet to answering the phones.

Think about the education that Sesame Workshop and PBS provides to millions of kids who don't have access to preschool due to prohibitive costs. I'm one of them. Raised on Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, and Reading Rainbow, I was the first person in my family to graduate from college. (Okay, so that correlation might be overstating something, but it is a fact, so I'm keeping it in here.)

Add to that the value of documentaries that aired as part of Nova or other specials that you saw in science, literature, or health class from Kindergarten through college. I guarantee that a large percentage of them came from PBS.

And then there's the arts.

Let's face it, without PBS there are millions of people who will never see a Broadway show, The Nutcracker, the story of Anne of Green Gables, opera from the Met, or a classical music performance.

When other commercial television stations have tried to program similar shows and specials, they ended up evolving into the home of Honey Boo Boo, "Real Housewives," and Dog the Bounty Hunter because for some reason it's been too hard to attract the sponsors and funding needed to stay on the path of education and exposure to the arts.

Last night after the debate, I put out a call on Facebook and Twitter, asking my friends and followers what they value about PBS and what they would miss if it was taken away. Here are some of the answers:

  • Because sometimes I need to pee by myself and it's nice to know my boys are watching Sesame Street not Scarface.
  • PBS puts the camera's eye on a larger world.
  • Because they don't have to care about ratings.
  • Sesame Street. No other children's program has ever resonated with, and taught, children, while simultaneously entertaining adults, ever.
  • Ever since National Geographic Channel became NatGeo and Discovery started showing Swamp People it's the only place to get a good documentary.
  • I just watched a documentary the other day about women, specifically rape and sex trafficking. It was highly educational and uniquely available on PBS. We need a resource like this.
  • Because LeVar Burton's book club was changing young minds well before Oprah stepped on to the scene.
  • Studies show that uninterrupted educational programming has better effect on younger children than ones with commercials.
  • PBS programming enriches the national dialogue & does so with such a scant portion of budget.
  • Frontline! Great job of making important/complex issues accessible. Use it in my classes all the time. Wonderful educational resource.
  • Best outlet for creative filmmaking and educational programming that doesn't *require* commercial endorsement.

But my favorite response was from astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson on Twitter:

Besides the obvious correlation that PBS is a huge source of the arts, I'm taking the opportunity today to write this post because I have a terrible feeling in my stomach.

If this is what is being said about PBS in a national forum helping voters choose a candidate, I fear what will happen when it turns from Cookie Monster to the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities funding...


3 responses for Giving PBS the Bird


Ms. Devra L. Thomas says
October 05, 2012 at 12:30 pm

And let's not forget the critically-acclaimed Ken Burns documentaries, which received their national airing on PBS stations.

What I would like to know is when does the disconnect happen between learning from PBS as children to reviling it as adults? I can list a hundred different shows I watched on PBS growing up, some that truly changed the course of my life's trajectory, and I would imagine that many of the same people who now cry for it to be privatized could do the exact same thing. So when does that change happen and why? Is it when we suddenly are old enough to hold a job and pay taxes? All of sudden we care about this one particular area of our tax investment and turn against what we held to be meaningful before we started working? If we found meaning in it as children (and/or adults; we still do), why wouldn't our children also find meaning in it? And why isn't that enough of a reason to continue public support?

I can understand why the "old guard" is weary but continues to fight the good fight. I'm young and already weary of hearing the same call for Arts and Humanities cuts that were being heralded when I was in elementary school. Of course, then I didn't understand the implications. Now, it's painfully clear how eliminating federal funding of these entities would impact our understanding of what it means to be human.

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October 05, 2012 at 2:42 pm

Very true on all fronts. Thanks for commenting, Devra!

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Theresa Cameron says
October 04, 2012 at 10:20 am

Thank you Tim for writing this blog about such an important issue. I can't believe that in the 21st century we are even having these types of conversations. Amazing and it makes me feel fearful and sad about the state we are in.

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