The Case for Public TV: It Helps Us Reach Our Full Potential

Op-Ed by Andrew Russell, PBS SoCal President and CEO
Re-posted from OC Business Journal:

On November 10, 1969, Sally moved to Sesame Street and met Big Bird for the first time – the first of thousands of memories made by this groundbreaking educational television program. Years later in 1981, PBS aired Ken Burns’ documentary The Brooklyn Bridge, the first in a long list of historical documentary films by the acclaimed filmmaker. Documentaries like The Civil War, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, and Jackie Robinson – all of which have inspired us to consider American history from a wider range of perspectives.

For decades the federal government has invested in trailblazing achievements like these through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which provides critical funding to PBS and NPR stations across the country. These investments have fueled innovation, taught our children and inspired us to connect with our passions. This small investment of federal dollars has helped public broadcasters inform the American people and spark civic dialogue about the issues that matter in our country. But that investment is at risk.

The news that the President’s budget proposes eliminating funding to CPB – which amounts to $1.35 per citizen per year – is troubling. The loss of federal funding would have a devastating effect on PBS stations – ultimately leading to the collapse of the PBS system as we know it.

Some background, for context: The Corporation for Public Broadcasting was established by the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 as a private, nonprofit corporation that directs public funds to more than 1,500 locally owned and operated public television and radio stations across the country. Its purpose is to use public broadcasting to educate, entertain and inspire the American people, unencumbered by political or commercial priorities.

Public broadcasting is a public-private partnership in the best tradition of America’s free enterprise system. It is an American investment that yields significant returns.  While the funding provided by CPB to each station varies, it supports basic functioning needs and is essential seed money to raise the additional monies needed to operate locally. For example, for every dollar PBS SoCal receives from CPB we raise an additional six dollars from our community.

Some say public broadcasters can replace federal funding from local sources. We know that’s not the case and extensive research has found there is no viable substitute for federal funding. This is particularly true for stations in small and rural markets that need more support from CPB to be viable. They serve a smaller population of people and have fewer potential donors they can turn to for financial support. Without federal funding these small stations, which in some cases are the only television stations available in their area, would ultimately need to close – cutting off vital news, education and public safety services provided by local PBS stations.

The loss of PBS stations would also have a devastating effect far beyond their local communities. The 350 stations that make up the PBS system rely on one another to maintain and grow local support to augment any federal funding. Each station pays dues to the national PBS organization for production of the programs you rely on and love. For each station that goes under, costs will rise, possibly insurmountably, for the stations that remain. And with fewer stations in the system, PBS will have less to invest in content like educational PBS KIDS programs and insightful documentaries from Ken Burns Frontline and Nova – which ultimately would lead to the end of the PBS you know and love.

Some in Washington believe eliminating funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting might be supported because it will help the federal bottom line. However, at only 0.01 percent of the federal budget, public broadcasting pays huge dividends in the form of non-partisan, non-commercial news and programing that is watched by 4 in 5 Americans. And Americans know public broadcasting is a good investment of tax dollars too. A recent national survey of voters found that a majority – including 82% if Independents, 62% of Republicans and 83% of Democrats – support federal funding for public broadcasting.

We know that strong public media is necessary today, maybe more than ever before, as our nation confronts nearly unprecedented division and misinformation. Public media advances a society that’s informed and civically engaged. It’s an investment in inspiring people to pursue their dreams and reach their full potential. It’s an investment in enrichment of the American spirit. What does a good society invest in – if not this?

Please join us to protect public media. Ask Congress to continue funding for public media – as it has done many times before.