Why exactly should the government fund PBS and NPR?

October 10, 2012

Kudos to Mitt Romney. He got everyone talking about Sesame Street for a bit. At last week's debate, Romney told moderator Jim Lehrer that he would eliminate federal spending on public television and radio. "I like PBS. I love Big Bird. Actually, I like you too," he joked. "But I'm not going keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for."


Sad face. (Matt Sayles/Associated Press)

As many liberals were quick to retort, this isn't a particularly bold plan to cut the federal deficit. Public television and radio stations like PBS and NPR got just $445 million from the government in 2012—or about 0.014 percent of the federal budget. If Romney is intent on cutting spending, he'll need bigger and better examples.

But as Michael Grunwald and others point out, that's not actually an argument for public broadcasting. Wasteful spending is wasteful spending, no matter how small. "So what if PBS is 0.014% of the budget?," Grunwald tweeted. "It's not why we pay taxes." And that got us wondering: What's the actual case for public radio and television?

The usual arguments in favor of public broadcasting focus on the facts that a) public television and radio are highly educational and b) that this government spending mainly benefits rural areas with few other media options. Let's take these in reverse order.

To start, it's worth noting that the government doesn't actually give money directly to PBS or NPR. Instead, Congress funds the Corporation on Public Broadcasting, which in turn divvies up the money according to formula. A big chunk goes to TV programming, with the rest going to 581 local television and radio stations around the country. Most of those stations, in turn, pay to license and run shows like "Morning Edition" or "All Things Considered."

Now, if Congress took this funding away, NPR and PBS would likely survive, though perhaps diminished—PBS gets just 15 percent of its budget from the government, and NPR just 2 percent.  "Sesame Street" would also be fine, as it largely survives on corporate sponsorships and merchandising deals. But a number of federally-funded public stations around the country might get shuttered. In many rural areas, local stations receive more than 50 percent of their funding from state and local governments. 

Is that a problem? Can't people in poorer or rural areas just watch other TV channels? Listen to other radio content? Perhaps. But the second argument is that public television tends to be more educational than what the private sector offers. As Kevin Zelnio details, only two other cable television networks—Nick Jr. and Disney Jr.—offer dedicated educational programming for children. "Other stations’ programming," he notes, "does not even come close the educational value of these 2 stations and PBS." For families that can't afford cable, PBS is the sole option.

There's evidence that the educational fare on public television is indeed beneficial. One 2000 study divided 62 young children in Oklahoma into three groups: One group watched PBS's "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood," one group watched "Power Rangers" (not an educational show), and a control group didn't watch TV at all. The children that watched "Power Rangers" subsequently had more trouble focusing on tasks and engaged in more horseplay. More broadly, a 30-year study on "Sesame Street" found that the show had long-lasting positive effects on the academic and social skills of preschool children. 

So the big worry is that an end to government funding would leave pockets of the country without public radio and TV, replaced by commercial stations that are less affordable, more saturated with advertising, and less educational. (The track record of The Learning Channel, which was privatized in 1980 and now features shows like "Toddlers & Tiaras," does not inspire confidence.) This would prove less of a problem in urban areas, where local affiliates could thrive on donations. Poorer and rural regions might not fare so well.

The counterargument, as National Review elaborates in an editorial here, is that alternative options are simply far more plentiful than PBS's supporters think. "That may have made some sense a few generations ago," they note, "when there were in effect three broadcast television stations, limited radio offerings, and enormous regulatory and economic barriers standing in the way of new market entrants. But that no longer is the case. Anybody with a few thousand dollars and an Internet connection can launch a television series or a radio program today and reach an audience of millions."

It's also true that government-funded media outlets aren't destined to succeed. True, supporters can draw up a long list of quality programming on public networks around the world, from BBC's "Doctor Who" to PBS's "Nova" and "Frontline." But this hasn't always been the case. According to Brian Palmer, back in the 1960s some public programming was considered so poor that many members of Congress questioned the whole project. But then "Sesame Street" took off and PBS began garnering accolades.

In any case, those are the basic arguments for and against public broadcasting. It's also worth noting, however, that voters tend to side with the arguments for: A recent Zogby poll found that 55 percent of respondents were flatly opposed to cuts, while only 35 percent agreed that "the government cannot afford to subsidize public television.”

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