Hands Off My PBS and NPR: Why We Still Need Public Broadcasting

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Established by the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has ensured universal access to non-commercial, high quality content, and telecommunications services. And does so by distributing more than 70% of its funding to more than 1,300 locally owned public radio and television stations along with the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio. The CPB is part of our nation’s commitment to ensuring culture, learning, and the arts are available to all Americans.

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This cartoon from the Indianapolis Star shows Trump slashing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting from the federal budget. And here we see horrified Sesame Street muppets look on.

This March, President Cheetohead unveiled his federal budget plan proposing to ax the federal funding from several government programs, including the CPB. The reason? According to Trump budget director Mick Mulvaney, “When you start looking at places that we reduce spending, one of the questions we asked was can we really continue to ask a coal miner in West Virginia or a single mom in Detroit to pay for these programs? The answer was no. We can ask them to pay for defense, and we will, but we can’t ask them to continue to pay for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.” His justification to cut public broadcasting in order to increase defense spending by $54 billion makes absolutely no sense. The CPB receives about an annual $485 million from the federal government, consisting of about .00006% of the federal budget. By contrast, annual US defense spending is about $500-$600 billion, consisting of half the federal budget at least (estimated). Yet, Mulvaney also has the audacity and the stupidity to state that we can’t ask a West Virginia coal miner or a Detroit single mom whether we can keep funding public broadcasting programs. It’s like he thinks that public broadcasting plays no role in ordinary Americans’ day to day lives. Does he have any idea parents and children are a key demographic for shows like Sesame Street? Or that PBS Kids is the only educational resource for 3- and 4-year-olds whose parents can’t afford sending them to preschool? And that local public stations may be the only source of free local news and programming in many rural areas? Or when West Virginia’s governor proposed cutting state funding to its public media from its budget, only to change his mind afterwards? Besides, it only costs the average American $1.35 each year for it. People have paid more for overdue library books for God’s sake. And given PBS and NPR’s penchant to air quality program that have been on for years, I consider it an investment well spent. Thus, I think asking single moms and coal miners to pay for public broadcasting is fairly reasonable. Of course, I may be a little biased since I watch PBS on a regular basis because I’d rather watch intellectually stimulating shows than meaningless crap. And I will defend PBS and NPR with my life. But don’t take my word for it since 73% of all Americans oppose cutting federal funding for the CPB including 83% of Democrats and 60% of Republicans.

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On May 1, 1969, Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood would testify before a US Senate committee to defend funding for public broadcasting. His words about how his show benefits young kids still echoes today. Since he’s from Latrobe and his show was based in WQED Pittsburgh, he holds a special place in my area as a local legend.

Critics of public broadcasting often view NPR as a liberal media hotbed and PBS as an obsolete relic of a bygone age. Republicans in particular, don’t think that the federal government should support public broadcasting even if it’s funding represents a miniscule fraction of the federal budget. They believe that we should let the market decide whether it wants science, arts, or music. Besides, if you want quality educational and cultural programming, then cable should be quite sufficient since you have whole channels devoted to education and culture. Or so they say. However, Americans should view their public broadcasting system as a national treasure since it provides a vital public service for local communities as well as the nation. As a media outlet, public broadcasting provides educational and high quality programming for all Americans. Without it, the United States would be a far worse off place. So much that disgraced four-star general Stanley McChrystal called cutting public media for increased military spending, “a false choice.” Nevertheless, American taxpayers pay only a small investment in public broadcasting that pays out big dividends in a way that’s indispensable to society. And as McChrystal said, it should be pitted against the spending more in improving our military. Not to mention, many viewers would miss out on all the intellectual and educational richness public media has to offer. Thus, if Trump should kill public broadcasting, America loses. Because public broadcasting is part of what makes America great. To eliminate federal funding for the CPB would be catastrophic to public broadcasting, especially where local stations rely on CPB funds. And I give you the following reasons why federal funding for PBS and NPR is worth protecting.

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A lot of these educational cable networks may have started off with high quality programming. But they later degenerated into airing crap in order to appeal to a larger 18-34 audience and sponsors. As you can see from these charts, it tells you what The Science Channel, National Geographic Channel, the Discovery Channel, and the History Channel air nowadays.

Most attempts at providing quality educational and cultural programming to cable television have failed.– Out of all the cable stations providing quality educational and cultural programming, only Turner Classic Movies and the Smithsonian Channel continue to do so 24/7. Other channels like National Geographic and the Weather Channel can also have educational content. But they can also feature a lot of crap. Nevertheless, there was a time when cable had a real chance of replacing PBS, but that was back in the early days. We should remember that the Discovery Channel, A&E, The History Channel, and TLC were created to provide such programming. A&E stood for Arts and Entertainment as well as used to show content relating to arts, dance, theater, history, literature, and nature. TLC once stood for The Learning Channel which used to feature science and nature documentaries and was co-owned by NASA. The Discovery Channel also featured science programming while the History Channel broadcasted documentaries on history. Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, conservatives could use networks like TLC, A&E, the Discovery Channel, and the History Channel, to argue that we don’t need PBS anymore. Nowadays, try to argue that point and all you get is a room full of obnoxious laughter. Today you will find that A&E is best known for airing Duck Dynasty, Dog, the Bounty Hunter, and Love Prison. TLC’s programming centers around trashy reality shows exploiting toddler beauty pageants, obese people, people who need therapy, and families who don’t mind putting children in the spotlight. The Discovery Channel may still have Shark Week but they feature reality shows like Amish Mafia and Naked and Afraid. As for the History Channel, well, basically they’ve devoted timeslots to reality shows as well as programming featuring pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. PBS, meanwhile, still shows the same type of programming throughout its existence at the same quality. So why did these cable networks departed so far from their original programming concepts while PBS didn’t? Mostly because these cable networks are for-profit businesses that exist to make money. Many times a cable channel’s management might add shows they feel that a larger audience wants to see, leading to additional profits. And by producing irrelevant or low-quality programming, they can increase their ratings to a target audience, increase viewership, and increase revenues. This is a process known as Network Decay or Channel Drift. The degree of channel drift may vary with some nonconforming programming retaining some degree of association with the channel’s original purpose like Pawn Stars on the History Channel. Yet, other programming may have no association whatsoever such as whatever you see on TLC. PBS, by contrast, primarily exists to provide programming of social benefit to their viewers that may not be commercially viable to the mass market like public affairs shows, documentaries, and educational shows. Many have been on the air for years, if not decades. In fact, one of the principles of public broadcasting is to provide coverage for interests for which there are missing or small markets. Quality educational and cultural programming would usually fit the bill. PBS’s non-profit status allows them to do so while not being obligated to appeal to the lowest common denominator, advertisers, or profits. Furthermore, PBS relies on government and private funding sources because it strives for the kind of independence in order to fulfill its educational and cultural mission to the public.

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In 2013, WNET New York released a series of ads of fake reality shows both on posters and in commercials. This was at a time when reality shows were very popular. Nevertheless, Bayou Eskimos is probably as realistic as Duck Dynasty or Amish Mafia. But since a lot of cable networks many thought would replace PBS now have hours of reality shows, I think it shows a lot about our culture.

Just because a TV show is commercially viable, doesn’t mean it’s good.– As much as I hate reality shows, I have to concede that networks find them particularly attractive. They’re relatively cheap to produce than a scripted series as well as is often said to be more authentic and engaging to viewers. Reality shows were very popular among audiences during my adolescence with the primary demographic being teenagers and young adults. Sponsors like them since they provide an opportunity for product placement, giving more time to market their products. However, reality shows aren’t quality entertainment as well as be rather exploitative and offensive regardless of popularity. Nor do they reflect “reality” as we know it since such shows use a lot of behind the scenes trickery. Yet, popular reality shows seldom ever get cancelled. Nevertheless, we need to understand that popularity among the masses doesn’t translate into quality. As a writer who enjoys old movies, I understand this concept incredibly well. Not every bestseller becomes a literary classic. And not every box office hit will be held as a cinematic masterpiece. Trash culture has always existed whether it be porn, penny dreadfuls, pulp novels, exploitation films, B-movies, and reality shows. Each generation has its own form of mindless entertainment. Nevertheless, the fact channels like A&E, TLC, the Discovery Channel, and the History Channel switched from their educational programming to sleazy entertainment demonstrates how some good quality shows aren’t always commercially viable. Many of the shows PBS airs like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, NOVA, Nature, and others wouldn’t have a chance on other channels. Nor would they be able to otherwise compete what’s available on other channels if it weren’t for PBS. For example, when Fred Rogers addressed the US Senate in 1969, he’d say that he knew his haircut decision could excite kids once he was in front of them. But he also knew it would be hard to compete for their attention as on-screen violence and special effects became ever more present outside public media. He also talked about how watching two men working through their emotions is much more important, relevant, and dramatic than guns firing. Cable channels may air marketable content but it doesn’t mean such shows are good.

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While the federal government provides some of the CPB’s funding, most of it comes from private along with state and local government sources. And it is because public broadcasting receives money from a variety of public and private sources that it’s able to air quality programming and exist as an independent non-profit entity.

Public broadcasting is not beholden to anyone but its mission and its viewership.– While public broadcasters may receive some funding from state and local governments, most financial support comes from underwriting from foundations and businesses ranging from small shops to corporations, along with audience contributions via pledge drives. They may rely on advertisers, but not to the same degree as commercial broadcasters or at all. Nor are they owned or operated by the government either. Rather many owned by non-profit groups affiliated with a local school district, a college, a non-profit organization, or by state or local government agencies. Stations receiving CPB funds must meet certain requirements such as the maintenance or provision of open meetings, open financial records, a community advisory board, equal employment opportunity, and lists of donors and political activities. And most of PBS’s national programming is produced by member stations, particularly WPGH Boston, WNET New York, and WETA Washington providing most of them. Though my local PBS station WQED Pittsburgh produced the iconic Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. NPR also broadcasts content from national providers like Public Radio International or American Public Radio. Yet, they also can air from other stations as well. For instance, the celebrated “Car Talk” was produced by WBUR-FM Boston while Minnesota Public Radio brings “A Prairie Home Companion.” Nevertheless, PBS is a great station for those who would rather teach lessons and enrich minds than make money. As long as it’s quality programming benefitting the public, PBS doesn’t care much about ratings as it does about access and viewers like you.

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Though kid shows exist on commercial networks, they often don’t alleviate parents’ and teachers’ worries since they may show violence, teach terrible lessons, and advertise junk food. PBS shows like Sesame Street have a great reputation since they aim to put kids’ interests first. And the fact parents and young children enjoy this show so much over the years has made it one of the most beloved on TV.

What’s good for the market isn’t always what people want.– Despite what public media opponents may say, there is a demand for educational and cultural programming no matter how small that may be. While networks like A&E, TLC, the Discovery Channel, and the History Channel weren’t as commercially viable while airing such programs, they did have an audience. When they embarked on the long road through network decay, that audience abandoned them. Nevertheless, a classic example of this is in children’s programming. Though commercial networks often air kid shows as well, parents and teachers have often expressed concern on what children watch on them. The fact cartoons can depict violence while sponsors air ads possibly promoting unhealthy eating habits doesn’t help. But above all parents and teachers worry whether kids are learning the right lessons from the stuff they watch. By contrast, PBS’s educational mission and commercial free programming earns a lot of trust from parents and teachers in regards to children’s TV in preparing them for lifelong learning. Not to mention, public broadcasting often puts kids’ best interests first. Of course, most of their kids’ programming aims for young children. But in a way it makes sense, since early childhood is a very vulnerable age where fostering a lifelong love of learning is vital. And a lot of them aren’t yet in school. Besides, most of PBS’s adult shows are usually appropriate for children anyway. Schools frequently show a lot of PBS documentaries and the network’s website often features lesson plans to go with them. After all, airing shows like Nova, Nature, and the occasional Ken Burns documentary should inspire kids to value learning and make a difference. PBS and NPR also provide news coverage from local events to international affairs and with as little bias as possible. Public radio stations even feature music like jazz, classical, and indie music you might not find on other radio channels. We should also account that PBS currently ranks #6 among all broadcast and cable networks for primetime household ratings, is watched by 82% of American households, and a monthly audience of over 95 million.

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This is a diagram of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s operating budget from 2014. As you can see most of it goes to supporting local TV and radio stations. Many of these are in impoverished rural areas and serve as the only source for local news and other services.

Local NPR and PBS affiliates put local audiences first.– As of 2015, PBS maintains current memberships of 354 stations across encompassing 50 states, the District of Columbia, and 4 US possessions. This gives PBS the distinction as the only TV broadcaster in the United States, commercial or non-commercial with station partners in every US state. By contrast, none of the 5 major commercial broadcast networks has affiliates in certain states where PBS has members with the most significant example being New Jersey. PBS’s estimated reach is 93.74% of all US households (or 292,926,047 Americans with at least one set). Along with national programming like Nova, Nature, Frontline, and Antiques Roadshow, local PBS stations also air a lot of locally produced content they probably wouldn’t see anywhere else. My local PBS station WQED Pittsburgh has aired locally produced documentaries, cooking shows, and film shorts. WQED has also hosted local forums on local issues as well as debates in important statewide election races. In rural areas, local PBS stations serve an important role in their communities that larger state and even national outlets can’t replace. For these residents, their PBS station might be the only place to see their county fair or their neighbors talking about their WWII service. They may also support local initiatives regarding education, adult literacy, and workplace development. In some areas, their public broadcast station might be the only source of news, entertainment, and emergency broadcast service available. And a lot of their poorer residents can’t even afford cable. Since many of these areas don’t have wealthy members like Pittsburgh’s WQED and WESA do, their rural stations rely on government funding for support. Even in the most conservative areas of the country, people usually have high esteem for their public broadcast stations which they might see as a neighbor or friend. And these stations often benefit their communities tremendously.

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From its debut in 1975, the PBS NewsHour has earned a reputation for excellence in its in-depth coverage on issues and current events. And it’s one of PBS most popular shows as one of the closest to a truly objective news source on the media landscape.

More people trust PBS and NPR than most government and media institutions. – In a nation where public trust in American institutions are on the decline such as the government and the media, PBS and NPR have consistently ranked as among the most trusted. Sure your local PBS and NPR stations won’t cover local sports, weather, and crime, but their commitment to viewers, listeners, and their mission has considerably helped their reputation. Not to mention, both PBS and NPR are among the only media outlets to have high public trust among Americans across all demographics as well as the political spectrum. Though both PBS and NPR have been criticized for showing liberal bias, most can at least name something they like about either. For instance, whenever conservatives criticize PBS and NPR, it usually has more with their national news content than anything. Though it’s not all they do. And there are plenty of conservatives who might think NPR is liberal but would certainly riot if you did anything to their public radio station. Parents and teachers trust PBS have consistently rated PBS as the #1 educational media brand for kids under 18 in the nation for very good reason. Hell, the American Academy of Pediatrics pointed to PBS Kids as a leading resource for educational programming. After all, PBS Kids puts greater emphasis on quality over quantity. As for news, PBS has highly acclaimed programs like the News Hour and Frontline. NPR is currently the most trusted news source in the nation with an audience that doesn’t just consist of white college educated liberals. Furthermore, PBS and NPR have been the only media outlets reporting on climate change during the 2016 election. PBS’s news programming has won 14 News and Documentary Emmys in 2016 which is more than any other organization. And Frontline took 7, which is more than any other individual series.

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PBS plays an especially critical role in educating young children, particularly those in low-income families unable to afford preschool. Without it, there would be no way for many children to prepare for kindergarten.

PBS is highly committed educating all children, especially those most at risk. – As a public station, PBS strives to make sure all Americans have access to free, evidence-based, high quality, and educational programming. Nowhere is their mission more important than in their kid shows that they added the PBS Kids channel available for everyone. As a result, PBS Kids reaches more young children and more kids from low-income families than any other children’s TV network. On air, PBS Kids attracts higher proportions of minority and low-income homes. Whereas more than 2/3 of children from 2-8 watch PBS. Not only that, but PBS also provides over 120,000 Pre-K-12 digital resources along with more than 1.8 million users with registered access to PBS Learning Media. Recent studies confirm that 9 out of 10 parents use PBS Kids resources for school preparedness while three-quarters say their kid engages in more positive behavior and higher critical thinking skills after engaging with the network. PBS Kids programming provides a vital service in school readiness to more than half of America’s 3-4 year-olds who don’t have the opportunity to attend preschool. For these children, PBS Kids is the only source of educational media content supporting school readiness which could boost their long-term educational opportunities. Such PBS Kids content supports a whole child ecosystem addressing core needs such as social-emotional learning, math, engineering, literacy, and science. And early childhood education is absolutely crucial in life that PBS understands. For older children, PBS and member stations have partnered for the “American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen” initiative. This program brings public media together with key community stakeholders to help students stay on the path to on-time high school graduation and future success. This partnership consist of PBS stations in over 30 states partnered with more than 1,400 community leaders, local organizations, and schools to help students succeed from Pre-K to high school graduation and beyond. Not to mention, PBS Learning Media includes content from award winning shows like Nova, Nature, American Experience, and Frontline that educators and parents could access at any time. PBS’s commitment to educating children of all ages has made the network absolutely essential.

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Cutting funding for PBS and NPR won’t free up a lot of money for military spending. But a United States without public broadcasting wouldn’t be a nice place to live. PBS and NPR have informed, educated, and inspired people as well s made our nation smarter, stronger, and safer. There are so many stories from viewers on how public media has made a positive impact in their lives. The fact Trump and his swamp cronies are willing to eliminate the CPB really illustrates how he values American greatness and values. Like not at all.

Public broadcasting creates makes Americans better citizens. – Though providing early childhood education and molding young children to be intellectually curious, empathetic, and prepared for school and life, it’s only one of the ways PBS enriches people’s lives. Unlike commercial TV stations, PBS treats its viewers as citizens instead of simply consumers as well as promote education, public trust in institutions, and civil discourse. Public broadcasting makes our country smarter, stronger, and safer. PBS and NPR both can inform, educate, and inspire people. And they both push us into elevating us and our sights. They both also encourage us to think and understand as well as bring us together. Today trust among Americans and for many national institutions is at its lowest in generations. Stereotyping, prejudice, and anti-intellectualism have proliferated that the US has elected a narcissistic sociopath as president who thinks little of America and embodies the country at its worst. Since PBS is ranked #1 in public trust, it can help build connections between different groups of people as well as promote a civil society. And we should note that most Americans oppose cutting federal funding for public television. Still, if Congress and Trump eliminate CPB funding, America would be a much more inhospitable place since PBS and NPR have played an essential role in millions of Americans’ everyday lives as well as benefited our country in so many ways. Even Fred Rogers realized this back in 1969 that he testified before Congress to defend PBS funding when Nixon wanted to cut it. More than ever we need a media outlets that value people over profits as well as enrich our lives. $1.35 a year is a small price to pay. Besides, the fact Trump is willing to cut PBS and NPR funding means he doesn’t value what’s great about America.

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