Learning the Alphabet with PBS

Today’s piece is brought to you by the letters P, B, S, and viewers like you. I enjoyed growing up on the street (Sesame Street, that is!), hanging out in the [neighbor]hood with Mister Rogers, learning that “having fun isn’t hard if you’ve got a library card” with Arthur, and taking a look in a book with Reading Rainbow. Maybe you learned to cook with Julia Childs, traveled with Rick Steves, sewed with Nancy, or got financial advice from Suze Orman. All of this is thanks to the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Plus, what other channel would host The Red Green Show?

Besides being entertaining, PBS provides both cultural and educational programming for all ages. According to a Washington Post story in 2012 by Brad Plumer, only two other channels, Nickelodeon and Disney, Jr., offer educational programming, and both are only available through paid cable packages. HBO can now be added to that list, but again, access is a problem for non-affluent families. The PBS website provides sample teaching plans, coloring pages, games, and other resources. Right now, viewers can stream a complete concert from legendary singer James Taylor, episodes of the documentary The Great War, and much more.  PBS also broadcasts well-respected and unbiased reporting including Frontline, PBS Newshour, Here and Now, and The Week with Charlie Rose. Unfortunately, no matter the popularity of PBS and its services, some politicians, seeking a way to reduce the national debt, see national programs not as benefits to the public but as money-sucking entitlements that must be eliminated.

The Trump administration is hardly the first group of Republican politicians to suggest defunding PBS as a means to ‘fix’ the budget deficit, but the threat is again very real. In 1969, President Nixon proposed eliminating the budget by 50%, which prompted Fred Rogers, beloved sweater-wearer and PBS educator, to testify to Congress about the importance of PBS. Rogers testified that the money spent on teaching children that it’s okay to feel, care, and be unique is doing good by growing better citizens. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012 professed his love for Big Bird, while at the same time noting that Sesame Street wasn’t worth borrowing money from China.

Earlier this year, Trump’s budgetary director Mick Mulvaney described cuts to social programs as “as compassionate as you can get. When you start looking at places that we reduce spending, one of the questions we asked was can we really continue to ask a coal miner in West Virginia or a single mom in Detroit to pay for these programs? The answer was no. We can ask them to pay for defense, and we will, but we can’t ask them to continue to pay for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.” Again Mulvaney ignores the intrinsic value of educational programming. Furthermore, cutting this spending will not resolve the Republican’s budgetary concerns. The reality is that the budget for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting only equates to 0.14% of national spending, so solving the national debt will need to fry larger fish so-to-speak.

Currently, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting receives $450 million dollars in funding, which is then divided between various PBS and NPR stations. To be clear, PBS would not cease to exist because of the proposed budget cuts, but the loss of taxpayer money would mean at least a 15% reduction in available funding for programming. On the surface this cut of 15% in funding doesn’t seem too significant, but stations that receive fewer independent donations would be impacted in a greater capacity. Each station is responsible for licensing fees, and stations that cannot afford fees for more costly shows purely through donations would not be able to show the same shows as other PBS channels. This could lead to greater differences in content shown between areas, which could limit knowledge as well as local engagement. PBS does not air traditional commercial advertisements due to its nonprofit status.

Another benefit of local PBS channels is the focus on local history and events, such as shows like Wisconsin Life, University Place, the annual University of Wisconsin Varsity band concert, and Around the Table for Sconnies watching WPT. Across the river in Iowa, IPTV’s local shows include Iowa Ingredient, Iowa Outdoor, and features about the Iowa State Fair. These local programs are very important for “fly-over” country that often feels forgotten by the mass media that focuses on larger cities, unless there’s an election or a fugitive on the run. In rural areas with less access to other television options due to income and/or infrastructure, PBS is a key connector to the rest of the country too.

In an official response to the proposed budget cuts, PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger notes that PBS only receives $1.35 per citizen each year, adding “the benefits are tangible: increasing school readiness for kids 2-8, support for teachers and homeschoolers, lifelong learning, public safety communications and civil discourse.” PBS’s content will also be significantly hurt by the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, two programs that significantly fund artistic endeavors. Without these initial grants, some great works may never be created because the artist will not have the funding to create and afford day-to-day necessities. Funding for National Public Radio (NPR) is also on the chopping block and similar concerns exist.

In an interview with late night host Seth Myers, Andrew Rannells, who was the original Elder Price in Book of Mormon, noted that he fears that the taped version of his most recent Broadway musical Falsettos will never air on PBS’s Great Performances series due to the lack of funding. Even if it does air, Rannells and others, including me, fear that these drastic cuts will extremely limit and disrupt other educational and cultural content available to the American public. My personal love of music and plays may never have developed as intensely as it did if I never had gotten to watch the 10th Anniversary of Les Miserables, Great Performance’s Kiss Me Kate, or Austin City Limits concerts. Angliofiles can thank PBS for bringing shows like Keeping Up Appearances, As Time Goes By, Downton Abbey, Victoria, Call the Midwife, Sherlock, and Doctor Who to the United States. That’s doesn’t even count all of the meaningful documentaries, including Nova and Ken Burn’s Vietnam War set to air this fall. The good news is that according to independent surveys conducted by Hart Research Associates and American Viewpoint, 73% of bipartisan voters oppose the cuts to public broadcasting. In the Midwest, 82% of voters are opposed to such cuts, but public opinion certainly does not mean funding will not be eliminated.

For those so inclined, please contact your federal representatives to express your love and support for public broadcasting. I’m sure the appraisers at Antique’s Roadhouse would agree that $1.35 each is worth the cost for another year of quality public television. You can also donate to PBS directly at http://www.pbs.org/donate/ (Yes, even when it isn’t festival time!), or simply tune into PBS for an hour at night. You’re bound to learn something, and hopefully, viewers like us will be able to enjoy PBS for years to come.