Once again, Big Bird is on the chopping block, threatened by the loss of federal funds that sustain public broadcasting stations. But the big yellow fella has been there before, and survived each time.
Is there any reason to think the outcome will be different this time around?
People in public broadcasting expect President Trump to propose “zeroing out” the government’s subsidy of noncommercial radio and TV stations when he presents his first federal budget to Congress this week. Such a proposal would eliminate the $445 million that Congress now sends to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the private entity that passes the money to nearly 1,500 stations affiliated with NPR, PBS and other public-media sources.
The loss of federal money would be nearly catastrophic, particularly for small stations in remote communities, public broadcasters say. Those stations rely on federal funds for as much as half or more of their annual budgets. “A number of those stations would go off the air,” said Paula Kerger, PBS’s president. “It’s an existential question for many of them.”
Stations that survive the cut would have to raise even more money through pledge drives and sponsorships to make up for the loss of dollars from Washington, added Roger LaMay, the chairman of NPR’s board and general manager of WXPN-FM in Philadelphia. “It would weaken the entire public radio system,” he said.
Then again, public broadcasters have been through the budget wars many times before and have always received the money that helps them broadcast “Sesame Street” and “All Things Considered.” In fact, no matter the rhetoric or momentary crisis, CPB has often ended up with a slight increase in its federal funding each year.
Presidents as far back as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan have discussed or proposed zero funding, only to have congressional allies come through to save the day. President George W. Bush proposed zero funding in all eight years of his administration; CPB’s appropriation actually grew 14 percent during the Bush years.
Which makes Big Bird more like Dracula; he keeps coming back from the dead.
The CPB’s share of the $4 trillion federal budget is microscopic — typically around 0.01 percent. But it has long been a cultural piñata and symbol of government excess for conservatives, who’ve been critical of the alleged liberal bias of public radio and TV programming.
Among public broadcasting’s many budget scrapes was one in 2005 when Bush’s education secretary, Margaret Spellings, complained that an episode of an animated children’s program, “Postcards From Buster,” had featured two families headed by lesbian parents. She demanded the return of federal funds that had subsidized the program; PBS decided to stop distributing the episode, heading off the impasse.
Public broadcasters expect more goose eggs in Trump’s first budget proposal, but they’re optimistic that history will repeat itself when the budget process is completed.
“Until we hear from the president, I’m hoping for the best,” said Patrick Butler, the president of America’s Public Television Stations (APTS), which represents most of the 171 public TV licensees in the country. “But we’re prepared to defend ourselves.”
Public broadcasting enjoys wide political support, primarily because public radio and TV stations are spread throughout big communities and small ones in both red and blue states. Over the years, people in public media have argued that many of these communities would lose irreplaceable educational and local news programs without federal support.
They have also mobilized the public at times, such as a 2011 lobbying campaign that brought Big Bird to the halls of Congress (that bit of theater may have been blunted by a 2015 deal between “Sesame Street’s” parent company, Sesame Workshop, and HBO, in which Sesame produces first-run episodes for the pay-TV network; PBS gets the reruns).
The pro-subsidy forces typically have strong Democratic support, but they’re also counting on some powerful Republican allies. They include Senate appropriations committee chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), whose father was chairman of the Mississippi Public Broadcasting Commission in the 1960s, and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who chairs the Senate subcommittee that oversees CPB funding.
The House appropriations committee and subcommittee chairmen, Reps. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) and Tom Cole (R-Okla.), have also previously supported CPB’s funding.
On the other hand, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) proposed eliminating the funding when he was chairman of the House Budget Committee.
“We only need a few Republicans to win the day on either side of the Capitol, and we have more than a few of those,” said Butler. “I hope President Trump will review the record . . . and realize our funding is a tremendous bargain for the American people. I feel optimistic, but I don’t want to get ahead of things.”