The fight to save public broadcasting and PBS is local.
“For many years there was a misunderstanding that [federal dollars] were going to fund Big Bird or organizations in Washington,” PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger told reporters Sunday at the Television Critics Association press tour. “But it goes to fund our stations.”
Kerger noted that stations in rural areas, particularly in Alaska, rely on the government to cover as much as 50 percent or more of their budgets.
“If that money goes away, it’s an existential crisis for those stations,” she said. “If 50, 40, 30 percent of your funding is pulled away there’s no way you can make up that money.”
What’s the back-up strategy if that happens? “There isn’t a Plan B for that,” Kerger warned. “In parts of the country if we do care that you have access to information it is important to keep this funding strong.”
That’s because, Kerger noted, one in five households don’t subscribe to cable or satellite, and 16 percent of homes don’t have access to broadband.
Kerger warned that, because public broadcasting has narrowly survived threats to budget cuts in the past, that people might not take this one seriously. But she’s not resting on her laurels.
“I have to assume that anything can happen,” she said. “This has been an extraordinary year. We need to be quite vigilant that as Congress debates our funding that we dont assume that people remember the impact we have in the community.”
Kerger noted that this year is the 50th anniversary of the Public Broadcasting Act, which President Lyndon Johnson signed in 1967 to create the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
“It would be do ironic if this is the year that it all ends,” she said.
That’s why PBS, the lobbying group America’s Public Television Stations and others are stressing the local angle and asking viewers to contact their legislators.
“PBS will not go away,” she said, “but a number of our stations will… for all of us in public media, we’ve linked arms to make an effective case, because we know what’s at risk if public broadcasting goes away.”
So far the outlook looks positive: the House Appropriations Committee, which approves funding levels for specific programs, is considering a draft bill that provides full funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the agency that funds stations.
The House Budget Committee, on the other hand, recommends eliminating public media funding. The Senate hasn’t yet put together its version of the appropriations bill.
“It’s a dynamic situation and the outcome is uncertain,” Kerger said.
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 percent of CPB funds from Congress must go to local stations.
Conservatives have targeted the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for decades, even though its annual appropriation is around just $445 million.
Kerger said public broadcasters compare their mission to Rapunzel, “spinning gold out of straw.” Recently, PBS landed more Emmy nominations for news and public affairs than any other broadcaster, even though, she noted, PBS’ entire news budget is probably less than one show on the commercial networks.
“We’ve always been scrappy, we’ve always been entrepreneurial and we always look for ways to do our work even better,” she said.
In other news, Kerger said “PBS News Hour” is still searching for a permanent anchor, along side Judy Woodruff, to fill the void left by the late Gwen Ifill, who died in November.
“We’ve encouraged the team there to take their time on who that person is,” she said. “I’m hopeful there will be an announcement over the next few months. Judy has extraordinary stamina and deeply misses her partner but has truly stepped up.”
And in the wake of the cancellation of “Mercy Street,” Kerger said PBS is looking for more American drama series. Besides the “Masterpiece” drama “Little Women,” “we are very interested in American drama and if the right project comes along, which were continuing to look for, and we can put the funding together.”