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Ken Burns, Jonathan Groff, and More on Why PBS Losing Federal Funding Would Be ‘Heartbreaking’

TCA: "They're just ideological footballs," Burns said of the comparatively tiny budgets spent on programming that has a massive impact on American lives.

Ken Burns


One of the most exciting things about PBS’s time at the Television Critics Association press tour is that, over the course of two days, critics get exposed to programming that covers an incredibly diverse range of subjects, from deep space exploration to nature to great poets to world-changing wars. But this summer, many of the panels took at least a moment to acknowledge the currently precarious state of public television programming in the United States, due to a proposed federal budget that would eliminate funding for PBS.

As reported on Sunday, PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger explained to critics that should the proposed budget go through, PBS had “no Plan B” for what would happen next. Many of the other speakers who appeared over the following two days had plenty to say about what effect this would have on the kind of programming they create, should this budget pass.

Below is a round-up of their comments, edited for clarity but otherwise presenting a sobering, if not tragic picture of how important widely and freely available public television is to America.

Ken Burns, director/producer, “The Vietnam War”

You won’t be shocked to know that Burns, an icon of the documentary world whose legacy goes back decades, is more than passionate about the importance of public funding for the arts and humanities:

“I’ve been up and testified on the Senate and House side many times, appropriations or authorization for [the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting]. And I think they’re hugely important and no more important than they are right now. Having a free press and having an independent press, having free history, an independent history, is incredibly important, particularly as we begin to feel the sort of quicksand of those who are willing to manipulate the truth and have alternative or false facts and things like that…

“These minuscule budgets, you know, .02 percent of the federal budget. They mean really nothing. They’re just ideological footballs, and yet almost every state in the union, [Kerger] describes this system of more than 350 stations, that people assume that we’re there for Nob Hill and Beacon Hill, when, in fact, some of our best ratings are in Alaska and Arkansas, or West Virginia or Oklahoma. This is really who we’re talking to.

“And we’re trying so hard as a network to reach out to all Americans with a brand that they can feel comfortable with. While we count on the marketplace to do lots of things in our lives, and it’s a wonderful, positive element in our lives, the marketplace doesn’t come to your house at 3:00 a.m. when it’s on fire. The marketplace does not have boots on the ground in Afghanistan at this moment. And while I wouldn’t ever suggest that public broadcasting has anything to do with the defense of the country, I think with every fiber of my being that it makes our country worth defending by what it has added to our national conversation.”

Washington Week PBS

Robert Costa, host, “Washington Week” and Jeff Bieber, executive producer, “Washington Week”

When asked about whether he thought the Trump administration’s budget guidelines had a chance at success, the host of the political panel show said:

“I think the federal budget Republicans have often had a complicated relationship with public media, but I think if you look at where this Trump administration is going on culture, on arts funding, it’s hard to predict. We haven’t gotten a clear signal about where they’re going with their appointees on a lot of these different fronts with the arts. So, as a reporter, I’m still in the wait-and-see mode when it comes to where this all goes with public television and public media. It’s hard to say, because the President has not just given many talks or public comments about his vision for all of this.”

Bieber followed with an optimistic note, saying:

“And I have to say, when you look at the letters and emails that we get from viewers and users online around the country when we did the health care show, we were inundated with thousands and thousands of viewers, hungry for information about health care, hungry for information about what’s going on in the country. So, as it’s been stated, public media, with all of its many stations around the country, need the support of the public money to survive. ‘Washington Week’ is doing quite well with corporate funding, foundation funding, and funding through public media through the government.”

Rebecca Eaton

Rebecca Eaton, producer, Masterpiece

The woman who brings American audiences series like “Downton Abbey” and “Victoria” also attempted to put a positive spin on things, making note that PBS was not the program’s sole budget source:

“I have to say that, for Masterpiece, our primary funder, of course, is PBS, but I can’t let it go without saying the other things that make PBS tick, in particular that make Masterpiece tick, which is the underwriting we get from Viking River Cruises, and this is not just knee jerk thanking them. This is sincere. These guys have been with us for a number of years now, and they intend to be with us next year, and we are hugely grateful for that and completely dependent on them, as well as PBS, as well as the extremely generous people who donate to the Masterpiece Trust. These are individuals who give us money, not to an endowment, but to spend down money to buy these programs. So I want to go on record with you telling you that.”

Ruff Ruffman Show

Linda Simensky, Vice President, Children’s Programming, PBS

In discussing “The Ruff Ruffman Show,” an upcoming spin-off of the long-running “Fetch! with Ruff Ruffman,” Simensky noted why children’s programming like the science-focused animated series was important for Washington to fund:

“We are up here because we all think it’s important, but I think that the real issue is, and I say this mostly as a parent, when you are sitting down in front of the television or whatever device with your kids and you are about to watch something, as a parent, you hope that your kids will get something out of it. And if you are a kid, you are really just looking for good character, a good story. And so if you can have something that has a good character, a good story, and some substance, I think that’s really the best thing of all for kids.

“So that’s what we aim to do at PBS, is offer great characters and great stories but also have some substance there, because I think what we are really imagining is that kids will be watching content, and it will be role modeling for them all sorts of things. I mean, they always say, ‘You learn something from everything you watch.’ It’s not always something good. And I think, from our shows, what you might be getting is that there are these topics that are really interesting, and you will be watching characters who are passionate about them. And as a viewer, you might be thinking, ‘I’m really interested in that,’ or you might be thinking, ‘Oh, I can think of other things I’m interested in, too.’ So I think it’s more than just teaching. It’s role modeling enthusiasm for topics. And, yes, I think all of PBS, we think that’s incredibly important for kids, and fun.”

Groff Wilk TCAs PBS

Jonathan Groff, performer, and Andrew Wilk, producer, “Live from Lincoln Center”

After an incredible live performance from the Tony-nominated actor on Monday evening (including a Sondheim tribute and a “Hamilton”/Beyonce mash-up), Groff and Wilk sat down for a Q&A that addressed the question of what it would mean, should federal funding to the arts be cut.

Wilk noted the importance of donors to “Live From Lincoln Center,” but also acknowledged the impact that losing their baseline funding would have:

“I think that Lincoln Center would survive — I think the more cataclysmic affect is the ripple effect. Because while for every dollar of funding that we get from the NEA we get another nine dollars, it’s the knock-on effect of losing that grounding funding. I do speaking engagements all over the northeast and the one comment I get consistently, that is universal, is you’re providing me with something that I can’t either afford to get to or I’m not able to get to. PBS is bringing you programming that you just otherwise would not have. We couldn’t do it without public broadcasting.”

During the session, Groff had previously spoken passionately about the impact that, as a young man growing up in rural Pennsylvania, getting to see and hear performances like Patti LuPone singing “Being Alive” from Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” had on him. So when asked what he thought about the potential for arts funding being cut, Groff added:

“The institutions in New York and LA, the big cities, they’ve got a lot of donors and they can find ways to modify and survive. But the heartbreaking thing would be the cuts to the people all over the country, where the arts… Giving the opportunity for kids to express themselves artistically is just… vitalist is the word that comes to mind, and impossible to miss. It’s everything. When I go back to my high school or work with the kids in New York, I see the way that music and the arts opens up people’s minds and brains and lives.

“The ripple effect of having the arts in the country is so essential and major and unmissable.”

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