It wasn’t the worst or most damaging moment of the presidential debates. I doubt it changed anyone’s vote. However, when Governor Mitt Romney made Big Bird the emblem of his promise to reign in government spending by cutting the subsidy to PBS, many Americans, myself included, responded passionately. Within minutes, someone had opened a Twitter account with the handle @FiredBigBird, attracting thousands of new followers each hour. I started a Facebook page calling for a “Million Muppet March” on Washington to defend public media. A producer at an L.A. animation company named Michael Bellavia built a website calling for the same thing.

While I intended the Facebook page to be a small-scale public forum for “Muppets and Muppet sympathizers” to share their anxiety over the possibility of having essential funding for our favorite American institution evaporate, it quickly became a minor social movement. The few dozen people I expected would respond quickly became thousands. Hundreds of people confirmed that they would attend a march if one were organized. Calls from the press started coming in; first a fluff piece in TV Guide and then a criticism by Michelle Malkin in the National Review. A Reuters article was syndicated in virtually every major newspaper in the country, and after that there was nothing to do but make the Million Puppet (nee Muppet, which is trademarked) March a reality.

We received hundreds of comments from supporters, eager to tell us how public broadcasting had changed their lives. Filmmaker and writer Adam Jones told us how he had built his career on ideas he learned while watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.  Michael Mungiello, a Georgetown University student, shared the story of his grandparents who immigrated to the United States as adults and learned to speak English watching Sesame Street. “PBS,” Michael wrote, “lifted my family up into the sphere of possibilities the English-speaking world presented.”

When the Public Broadcasting Act was signed into law I was not yet two years old. The first episode of Sesame Street aired shortly before my fourth birthday. My father was an engineering student at Utah State University and my mother stayed home. They both worked hard to make sure that I always had opportunities to learn, but the extent of my awareness of the world beyond the playground at the USU trailer court came from television, including television I probably shouldn’t have been watching. I vividly recall Walter Cronkite reading the body count every night and that frightened me. Public media, on the other hand, provided me with a view of the world I otherwise had no access to. The first orchestra I ever saw was Arthur Fiedler conducting Evening at Pops. I first encountered opera, Shakespeare, ballet and musicals via public media. While the CBS Evening News chronicled the worst of our civilization—the Vietnam War and Watergate—public television placed the greatest products of culture in front of me; a dazzling vision of what the world can be.

Like many other people raised in rural areas and small towns where accessibility to programs like Head Start is limited, Sesame Street was an important part of my pre-K education, reinforcing my parents’ lessons on values like cooperation, and normalizing racial diversity, something I didn’t see in my own community. I even acquired some of the remaining conservative ideas I hold while watching William F. Buckley, Jr., on his PBS program, Firing Line.

Public media is a uniquely American institution that chronicles our history, educates us and celebrates the diversity of American culture to a broad audience. On November 3, 2012, more than 1,000 people from across the country joined me in the Million Puppet March on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to express our support for public media and for the federal financial support that helps make it possible. Just one month after the first presidential debate, with no organizing experience and no money, we had created a demonstration that included parents, children, educators, and, of course, puppets, from California, Washington, Texas, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, New York, Connecticut, the Carolinas and Florida.

More than a few of the comments we received, on the other hand, were highly critical—critical of us personally and critical of public media generally. Criticism fell along ideological lines including the arguments that a free marketplace can do everything better and that the use of tax revenue to fund public media exceeds the constitutional powers of the federal government. The public conversation revealed a deep misunderstanding of what public broadcasting actually does and how it is financed.

One common critique we saw was the reductionist view of public media programming: picking one public media program and using it to represent all of public media. In an interview, Dan Joseph of the Media Research Center, a group dedicated to meting out liberal bias in the media, asked why tax dollars should go to support Antiques Roadshow.

There is no real answer to that question because the question is misplaced. It is easy and intellectually lazy to cherry pick one program, like Antiques Roadshow, and lump all of public media in with it. Like Sesame Street, Antiques Roadshow was originally developed in part with money that came from the federal government, through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). Today, Antiques Roadshow, which is produced by WGBH Boston is also underwritten by First Union Bank, Liberty Mutual Insurance Co., Suburu of America, The Chubb Group of Insurance Companies, eBay and distribution fees paid by local public broadcasting stations—“made possible by viewers like you”—enjoys the highest ratings of any series distributed by the Public Broadcasting Service.In January 2013, Downton Abbey set a record for the highest ratings of any single episode aired on PBS.

Similarly, Sesame Street easily stands on its own two feet with well-established foundation grant funding and product licensing fees, though it does receive some small part of its funding from the federal government, primarily in the form of fee-for-service work. Sesame Street will never be in danger of going broke, but if it hadn’t been for federal support for its educational mission early on, the show might never have gotten off the ground. It was simply too revolutionary when it was introduced. No one had ever tried to harness television to deliver creative, high production value, curriculum-driven content to children. Grant funding, in part from the CPB, made that possible. By its 40th anniversary in 2009, Sesame Street had become the most widely viewed children’s television program in the world.

The Antiques Roadshow argument also fails to recognize that the lion’s share of federal funding for public media, distributed through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, does not go to production or to bureaucrats. More than 70 percent of that money goes directly to local public television and radio stations. That portion of their budgets is especially important to broadcasters like Idaho Public Television, which serves rural areas where populations are not able to fully fund the operational needs of the station. In many markets, including Idaho, a loss of federal financial support would mean a reduction in service area. According to Peter Morrill, general manager at Idaho Public Television, the loss of the CPB Community Service Grant, would eventually result in Idaho PTV’s service area being reduced to only the Treasure Valley, where the population could support the infrastructure, leaving nearly two thirds of Idahoans living in less densely populated areas without a public television broadcast signal.

The second common misconception of public media is that it is all PBS and NPR. While PBS, is a television network, it is not a network in the way that NBC or FOX is. PBS does not have a central news or programming department, so the selection of programming that you will see on one PBS station will not necessarily be the same as any other, and the programming schedule will certainly not be the same. Because public television and radio stations are private, non-profit enterprises, programming decisions are made locally and reflect community interests. PBS functions more like a distributor of content, and makes great quality content available to all its members; content of a quality that they would not be able to produce on their own. While dues from member stations account for a large portion of its budget, PBS also relies on private foundations. Only about 12 percent of the PBS budget comes from the federal government through the CPB.

A third criticism of public broadcasting is the idea that the private sector can and would more efficiently produce anything that the publically subsidized marketplace currently produces. Even the most superficial analysis of the market reveals that the commercial media marketplace has had every opportunity to create value on par with public media and hasn’t. We already know that the privatization of non-commercial media starts a race to the bottom. We cannot have forgotten that TLC was formerly The Learning Channel, a project of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and NASA. Before the federal Department of Education was split off in 1979 Its privatization in 1980 resulted in the replacement of quality, educational programming with programs like Sister Wives, Long Island Medium, and, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

Even networks that started as commercial enterprises intended to serve performing arts consumers have been unable to avoid the ratings and profits trap.  Bravo started as a premium cable channel delivering performing arts programming including opera, jazz and independent films. The demand for greater profits soon replaced staged productions of Romeo and Juliet with Pregnant in Heels and The Real Housewives franchise. Even if top notch educational and arts programming were available on cable or satellite providers, taking away quality, free, over-the-air educational programming disproportionately deprives access to those least able to afford it.

The claim that the free market can do everything that public broadcasting does fails to acknowledge that some of the most important roles of the American public broadcasting landscape serve our national interests, including free access to early childhood education and national security functions as well.

It is only because of Idaho Public Television, for example, with funding support from the federal government and in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security, that the Boise County Sheriff’s Office and area residents have access to enhanced emergency alert services. Transparency and accountability of Idaho government is improved because 97 percent of Idahoans receive a free, over-the-air broadcast signal from Idaho Public Television and are able to watch our government at work, including legislative programming, live committee meetings and Idaho Supreme Court hearings. Through a partnership between Idaho Public Television and the Idaho Commission for Libraries, over 14,000 research-based instructional resources—including videos, interactive sites, images, audio files, mobile apps, lesson plans and worksheets are available free to children and educators across the state. These public goods, and others, which have been created with federal support, create value that far exceeds the $1.35 per person per year that the federal government spends funding public media.

Following the Million Puppet March, friends in public media confided in me that the imminent threat of funding cuts appears to have been put to rest, at least for the next year or two, but without some kind of reform of the way that public media is financed and governed, the question is bound to come up again. So what can be done?

In order to do a better job of serving the public, public broadcasters need more distance from their funding sources. Currently the CPB receives its appropriation two years in advance. More security for public broadcasters would be obtained if the appropriations were paid five years in advance. Not only would such a change make financial planning for things like equipment upgrades and repairs easier, but being one full election cycle away from any radical changes in funding would provide stations, particularly those serving rural areas, the necessary time they would need to find other sources of long term support before being forced to make decisions about where to cut services.

That same distance would also provide more security to CPB funded news programs like PBS Newshour and All Things Considered. A publically funded free press must be accountable to the audience it serves and not its funding source. As Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in his dissenting opinion in FCC v. League of Women Voters: “The court jester who mocks the King must choose his words with great care. An artist is likely to paint a flattering portrait of his patron. The child who wants a new toy does not preface his request with a comment on how fat his mother is.”

Furthermore, the governing structure of the CPB should be reformed. The current board is comprised of nine presidential appointees, each serving six-year terms. The board should be expanded to include 13 members with five, ex-officio voting members representing major cultural institutions, like the Library of Congress, the National Science Foundation and the Smithsonian Institution. As the digital revolution continues to evolve, it becomes more and more clear that the function of public media in the American cultural landscape is much the same as the function of libraries was in Thomas Jefferson’s time. The state-funded marketplace for the free exchange of information and ideas that was at the heart of our founder’s vision would best be developed and guarded by a strong governing structure at the CPB.

These changes, which have been promoted by the Association of Pubic Television Stations, Free Press and the Center for Digital Democracy, would serve to strengthen and depoliticize public media funding by ensuring that the management of the federal investment in public media was being used in the service of all Americans. However, structural changes to the CPB will not solve the larger problem of the CPB’s failure to effectively communicate its value to the general public.

Cries to “Save Big Bird,” and actions like the Million Puppet March are only a band-aid on this much larger problem. The CPB has at its disposal an astonishing array of talent and capacity capable of engaging the public in meaningful and respectful ways.  This year, two different organizations, American Documentary, Inc., producer of the PBS series POV, and StoryCorps, both of which receive major support from the CPB, were recipients of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Award for Creative and Effective Institutions. These awards are given to organizations based on their ability to “generate proactive ideas, reframe the debate, or provide new ways of looking at persistent problems.” If the CPB can provide leadership in the creation of organizations like these, surely it is capable of leading its own reform.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.

  • JavaBear

    Excellent article, Chris!