Back when Vice President Mike Pence was the governor of Indiana, the D.C.-based lobbying group America’s Public Television Stations named him a “Champion of Public Broadcasting.”
Now they’d probably like their trophy back.
Public broadcasters are preparing for the fight of their lives. Donald Trump’s proposed budget, as feared, completely eliminates funding for public broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for Humanities. It’s a part of an unusually cruel proposal that, beyond the arts, also cuts social services like Meals on Wheels.
It’s no surprise that Trump and Republicans are gunning for public broadcasting. Conservatives have targeted the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for decades, even though its annual appropriation is around just $445 million. Its elimination would have virtually no impact on the nation’s deficit, particularly if Donald Trump succeeds in his proposal to increase military spending by $54 billion.
“The Government Accountability Office concluded there is no viable private substitute for the federal funding that ensures universal access to public media’s programming and services,” one CPB source recently told IndieWire. “A 2012 report said that ‘the loss of federal support for public broadcasting risks the collapse of the system itself.'”
It’s important to distinguish between PBS and the CPB. Founded in 1967 by the Public Broadcasting Act, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is a nonprofit organization, funded by the government, to fund programming and also hand out grants to public television and radio stations to help cover some operational costs.
Per its mandate, around 71% of CPB funds from Congress must go to local stations.
That’s the key here, and the irony: It’s smaller broadcasters in rural areas, particularly in red states – where Trump support is the highest – that will be most impacted should funding disappear. Many of those stations could disappear all together. Rural stations don’t generate the kind of fund raising or underwriting that stations in major markets do. Those smaller stations also often have to cover a wider footprint, which means additional engineering costs for multiple transmission and translator facilities.
Rural public broadcasters are already struggling: According to Current, a publication that focuses on public TV and radio, West Virginia Public Broadcasting is estimating that it will have to lay off 20% of its workforce by the end of this month due to state funding cuts.
“Stations in rural parts of the country and in places like Alaska, in particular, the percentage of the station’s budget that is from the federal government represent about 50%,” PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger told reporters in January. “We work very hard, particularly our stations at the local level, in talking to legislators about the importance of federal funding, because it enables our content to be accessible to everyone in this country, and it particularly is critical in parts of the country where citizens may not have access to information other ways.”
In a recent op-ed for the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, University of Texas at Austin journalism senior lecturer Kate Winkler Dawson also argued that the elimination of public broadcasting funds was a public safety issue: “Rural communities are vulnerable without broadcast information. Public stations send out Amber alerts, the system that tracks missing children. They broadcast crucial warnings about severe weather. Many stations in states like South Dakota and Alabama serve as Emergency Alert System hubs, disseminating life-saving information.”
Conservatives often attack PBS and National Public Radio for taking so-called liberal stances, and yet, as Dawson notes, PBS and NPR themselves aren’t funded by the CPB and will survive (albeit, in perhaps smaller form).
Critics of public broadcasting also frequently point out that the rise of cable and streaming media has filled the programming gap, making PBS less essential than it once was. But arts programming remains fleeting in cable, where networks once devoted to such programming (like Bravo) have eventually shifted to more populist fare. Ovation, which is now the leading cable network devoted to the arts, is available in less than 50% of TV households.
And although Big Bird and “Sesame Street” are now funded by HBO, households that don’t subscribe to the premium service must still rely on PBS to watch that show (which appears there months after its HBO run) and other educational kids’ programming. Coincidentally, PBS just recently launched a 24-hour PBS Kids network, which runs as a digital subchannel on many PBS member stations.
Meanwhile, back in Washington, America’s Public Television Stations will now have to lobby Pence and other so-called “champions” of public broadcasting (and past winners of that APTS award) Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo., and the chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee with direct jurisdiction over public broadcasting funding), and Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla., the chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee with direct jurisdiction over public broadcasting funding).
“Our support on Capitol Hill is strong – and that the American people by overwhelming margins want federal funding for public broadcasting to be maintained or increased,” said APTS president/CEO Patrick Butler. “We are ready to go with a grassroots advocacy and social media campaign to mobilize our millions of supporters nationwide if need be, but we hope the President will be persuaded that public television is a lot more than good television: we teach America’s children, we protect America’s communities, we empower America’s citizens, we celebrate America’s culture, and we preserve America’s national memory.”
To jump in front of the debate, PBS recently released a national bipartisan voter survey of 1001 registered voters, conducted by Republican pollsters American Viewpoint and the Democratic-focused Hart Research Associates, found that 73% opposed eliminating federal funding for public television, while Republican voters were against getting rid of federal funding by a 2 to 1 margin (62% vs. 32%). Also, 66% of Trump voters said they were in favor of “increasing or maintaining federal funding for public TV.”
“We have always had support from both parties in Congress, and will again make clear what the public receives in return for federal funding for public broadcasting,” Kerger said Thursday in a statement. “The cost of public broadcasting is small, only $1.35 per citizen per year, and the benefits are tangible: increasing school readiness for kids 2-8, support for teachers and homeschoolers, lifelong learning, public safety communications and civil discourse.”
Next up, the House Committee on Appropriations plans to hold a budget hearing for the CPB on Tuesday, March 28, with CPB president/CEO Patricia de Stacy Harrison testifying. You’ll be sure to hear that $1.35-per-citizen figure there.
Said Butler: “That’s a deal this President should love.”