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Another Proposal to Cut Funding for Public Broadcasting? What a Big Bird-Brained Idea
February 14, 2011  | By David Bianculli

This one was inevitable: With Republicans in Congress winning seats in the 2010 midterm election and feeling their oats, and with budget cuts a hot-button issue on both sides of the aisle, Republicans are proposing a complete elimination of public funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which provides money to both PBS and public radio. What's a supporter of public broadcasting to do? Simple: Remember your history, and the time, in 1969, when Fred Rogers single-handledly saved the concept of public funding for public television...

It was May 1, 1969, and Rogers -- whose Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was, at that point, delivered by an ad hoc collection of stations on the National Educational Television network and elsewhere -- was appearing before the U.S. Senate Communications Subcommittee on funding for PBS. PBS was a new idea then, and funding it partly with federal money, then and ever since, has been a matter of some controversy.

By the time mild-mannered Rogers' turn came to speak, committee chairman Sen. John Pastore, a Democrat from Rhode Island -- the same man who had led a crusade against the impropriety of commercial broadcast network TV content -- wasn't exactly inclined to approve the funding. He'd never seen a single one of Fred Rogers' TV programs for children, and had no idea what to expect when the kids' TV host from Pittsburgh sat at the witness table.

"All right, Rogers," he grumbled, not even giving his witness the courtesy title of "Mister" he used in the title of every program. "You've got the floor."

Rogers explained that he had prepared and brought a written statement that would take about 10 minutes to read, a philosophical statement about television. Then he said if the senator would promise to read it later, Rogers would trust his word, and would rather speak from the heart.

That threw Pastore for a loop of sorts -- and as Rogers described his show after Pastore admitted he had never seen it, the gruff senator softened visibly with every sentence, nodding in agreement and seeming relieved, and astounded, to hear about a show that told small children, "I like you, just the way you are."


"Well, I'm supposed to be a pretty tough guy," Pastore said, "and this is the first time I've had goosebumps for the last two days."

Having hooked the senatorial fish, Rogers reeled him in, singing him the song, "What Do You Do with the Mad That You Feel?" Not just a line, or a verse. The entire song.

And all these cynical political vets and observers in the hearing room just melted. It was Mr. Rogers Goes to Washington, just as purely and victoriously -- and when Fred Rogers stopped singing, Pastore responded with the best possible review.

"I think it's wonderful," he said -- not once, but twice. And then he told Rogers, simply but firmly, with a smile, "Looks like you just earned the 20 million dollars."

(You can read the transcript of Fred Rogers' appearance before the committee by clicking HERE, or see it by watching below. But come back, please, because I have a point to make.)

So how does this 1969 triumph, at the very birth of PBS, pertain to 2011, and what supporters and representatives of CPB should do to combat the latest threat of public funding elimination? Easy. Here's how.

What CPB should NOT do is drag out the old dry, if accurate, arguments, about how federal funding provides only a tiny percentage of each public TV and radio station's operating budget. It should not trot out long laundry lists of the shows it has provided in the past, or plans to provide in the future, which are the kinds of educational, inspirational, enlightening programming a nation should be happy to embrace and support.

What it SHOULD do is ask for an opportunity to state its case at a subcommittee hearing -- and bring to the table a trio of expert witnesses. Let THEM speak to the politicians calling for an end of CPB funding, as a nation watches, and let them -- like Fred Rogers 42 years ago -- speak plainly about children, and caring, and inspiration.


The three witnesses? Kermit the Frog, Big Bird and Elmo.

Virtually everyone who's ever acted opposite a Muppet, be it on PBS's Sesame Street or the syndicated Muppet Show or elsewhere, says the same thing afterward: They forgot they were talking to foam likenesses operated by puppets, and couldn't help but just relate to them as their characters. Senators, and congresspeople are no different, and would not be immune to their childish charms.

Besides, that hearing room image -- three cuddly puppets, up against the gruff men and women of Washington -- would make the front page, and front blog page, and main newscast, of every news operation in the country.


And from that point on, as the Republicans demand to close the purse strings on CPB, they'll be the ones who are trying to silence Big Bird, Kermit and Elmo.

When Fred Rogers brought the spirit of his neighborhood to a federal hearing room, he saved public broadcasting. The Muppets from Sesame Street, by bringing the spirit of THEIR neighborhood, can do the same thing.




Tausif Khan said:

Because of PBS I was able to watch Beaches of Agnes from French New Wave director Agnes Varda for free. It is something I will cherish forever.

When I was a kid American Experience fulled my love of learning American history. As an immigrant to the country it was an invaluable resource.

Comment posted on February 14, 2011 9:33 AM

Eileen said:

With all the pork barrel spending (can anyone say "Bridge to Nowhere"), it would be an absolute shame -- no, crime -- if public television and radio lost their federal funding.

As a parent of two children who grew up fixated by the likes of Fred Rogers, the Muppets, Carmen Santiago, Reading Rainbow, Wishbone et al, I would personally be heartbroken. These shows weren't just about learning, they were about coping in the larger world around you.

David, please keep us all up-to-speed on what is transpiring relative to public television and radio. They are both staples in many of our lives, and to lose them would be unthinkable. Let us, your commenters, know what we can do to further their cause.

[Whatever your position, a personalized letter to your congressperson and senator can never hurt. NOT an email -- one of those snail-mail things. Anyone who writes as intelligently as they write to this website will earn some degree of notice automatically. -- DB]

Comment posted on February 14, 2011 12:01 PM

Tom Brinkmoeller said:

I still believe this wouldn't be happening if the political chameleons weren't trying so hard to change their colors to orange pekoe or Earl Grey or whatever is the hue du jour of the tea party. I don't change my mind at all: Public broadcasting is a rallying point so many know about but so few know. As for Pastore, he had little idea of what public broadcasting was trying to hatch. But politicians today think they know all about it, though it's a fair bet few of them watch or listen. If they are conservative, they buy into the liberal-media argument, and if they aren't conservative, they probably also don't take the time to analyze for themselves. I will bet, again, some are for public broadcasting because conservatives hate it.

Fred Rogers was an icon still growing in stature when he testified, and he had the intelligence and savvy to make what he said a fair representation of what the dream of public broadcasting was all about. Puppeteers holding beloved icons in their hands probably can't speak what Paula Kagan or Peggy Charren or Terry Gross would say. It could turn into a Ted Baxter experience where the appearance might suggest a Walter Cronkite point of view until the mouth opened and Bozo the Clown jumped out.

I'd suggest, instead, that Ken Burns sit in the position Fred Rogers once occupied. He has the smarts and the charisma and the marquee impact.

[Brilliant idea, Tom. Out with Big Bird! In with Big Burns! Let's see anyone try to pull HIS funding... other than GM, which did just that... -- DB]

Comment posted on February 14, 2011 1:29 PM

Eileen said:

Tom -- fantastic idea!

Although I only mentioned children's programming in my post above, you can rest assured I am a devoted viewer of PBS.

Over the years I have loved, learned from, and savored the likes of Antiques Road Show, American Experience, American Masters, and anything that the names Rick and Ken Burns are attached to.

NPR is a staple in my son's office; he's a fan of both Terry Gross and David B's reviews. I'll mention the funding issue to him this evening and see if he & his co-workers can't get the ball rolling on their end with some PBS support.

For myself, my Senator is Chuck Schumer, who has a wonderful track record relative to "average joe" issues. This might be something to really get him riled up about. WNET in NYC and the surrounding area is such an integral part of tv programming that I can't imagine a Senator Schumer not joining the pro PBS forces.

Let's all start our own writing campaigns -- none of us would want to feel that down the road we missed an opportunity to show PBS the love it so richly deserves.

Comment posted on February 14, 2011 3:56 PM

Mac said:

These tea------ (I'll refrain here,'cause this is David's site and civility is important, but I'll not use"party") carry copies of the Constitution on their person, had it read at the beginning of the new session, but still fail to realize the meaning of the words so when they don't see the exact phrase "separation of church and state", they think there is no such thing.
Bill Moyers is not on the tube anymore and we are weaker for it. Years ago he had to fight PBS internally because of Ken Tomlinson, a Bush guy put inside CPB to specifically rid PBS of Moyers. Moyers response: "The one thing they (the Rep party) loathe more than liberals is the truth." But Moyers in front of Congress, now outside the system, would be fun to watch. Michele Bachmann? He could dismantle any statement from her with one verb tied behind his back. Boehner? A no-brainer. And now, with little to lose, this guy who was at the beginning of public broadcasting, could really lay it out against these morons. The few pennies spent for each child to view not only Sesame Street, but Sid the Science Guy (an extremely important Henson show about how to learn, how to solve, how to ask questions) and others put a spark in a young mind. What an investment! What potential returns! If only the tea people paid attention when they were growing up!

[Thanks for striving for a tone of civility, even if you began to slip a bit with "morons" and such at the end. But I'm passionately in agreement with both your recap and recommendation of Bill Moyers. To me, the whole thing seems rather simple. The funding amount for CPB is too low as it is -- laughably, absurdly miniscule, in the overall scheme of the deficit and budget -- and public broadcasting, if only for its arts and children's programming, is an invaluable resource that potentially reaches everyone. Twenty years ago, I wrote a book called "Teleliteracy" that interviewed Moyers, among others, talking about the inspirational value of TV to reach people. Lindsay Law remembers watching a TV broadcast of a Broadway play, and it inspired him to grow up to run "American Playhouse." Yo-Yo Ma was inspired by Fred Rogers. (Also in the book, now that I think of it.) Our children are our country's future, and they deserve shows on arts and science and language and civility -- not just "Jersey Shore." -- DB]

Comment posted on February 14, 2011 4:27 PM

Laren said:

Check here for lots of ways to get involved:

[I normally don't let website links run as part of comments, but this is a well-chosen, official exception. Thanks for passing it along. -- DB]

Comment posted on February 14, 2011 10:30 PM

Sally W. said:

Thanks for posting the historical perspective of television history, David! It does feel a lot like history's repeating itself with the latest threats to PBS and NPR.

My respect for Mr. Rogers remains strong; it's such a shame we don't have his compassion on tv anymore.

I do agree with Tom that politics is probably the big factor in this - witness NPR's handling of the Juan Williams termination and the reactions. That was messy, to say the least. I'm not suggesting that PBS or NPR is perfect, but the critics and the criticized didn't have to get crazy.

Maybe it's just me, but I don't mind hearing out the economic arguments (i.e., that cutting PBS and NPR doesn't make that much an impact on the federal deficit). The economic arguments get rehashed a lot because they remind another generation of taxpayers/voters of realities that they don't think about, because thinking about federal deficits isn't a part of everyday thinking (because life gets in the way, as a matter of - well - reality). In fact, the op-ed for PBS by William F. Baker, WNET President Emeritus, in the NY Daily News last week was an eye-opener for me, and I thought I was pretty educated about a lot of issues, including about PBS.

Of course, this assumes that genuine concern about the federal deficit is the issue, rather than, say, political differences...!

I had read Michael Davis' "Street Smarts: The Complete History of Sesame Street" last year - great book for bringing to life that the idea that entertaining tv could be educational was revolutionary at the time. After reading that book, I doubt anything but PBS would have made Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers possible.

To me, PBS is still where I can watch operas, ballets or Broadway - not cable (and cable's terrific, really...!). I also worry about the haves vs. have-nots issue: where else would those who have otherwise no access get access to watch educational/entertaining/enlightening tv?

Even on the radio side, public radio was what saved classical music radio in New York City, when it merged with WQXR!

If anything, for every criticism about modern American culture, we can easily point to PBS and NPR for how we can broadcast our national strengths and bring perspectives about our history, current events, etc. Charlie Rose and the Lehrer (now PBS) Newshour have been invaluable for their coverage on the Egyptian events. Watching American Experience's recent replay of the Ronald Reagan documentary - well, I thought it was a fair presentation (then again, I'm open-minded enough not to get crazed about the politics). There are really not many outlets for this kind of stuff (History Channel's especially not quite doing that for me, I'm sorry to say).

With many options and fragmented audiences - I'm not sure what else brings us together, but at least Sesame Street did/still does, and it's still nowhere else but on PBS... I think I'm going to have to write to my congressman and senators, _and_ their colleagues...

[What a great, smart posting. Sally, I couldn't agree more... and I couldn't be more impressed by the gang that gathers here. Thanks again. And say - is anyone watching the Rogers video of him before Congress? Isn't he amazing, boys and girls? -- DB]

Comment posted on February 15, 2011 12:22 AM

Angela said:

I didn't know until now that PBS is in peril from probable lack of government funding. And that's where I think a a big part of the problem lies, that people don't know about this.

As Eileen suggested, one of the most important things we could do, is to get the word out to as many people as possible. Because once they do, surely they too will write letters to their congresspersons, give donations, and also pass the word around.

(They would also need to know that writing snail-mail letters is the very best use of their time, as I thought that e-mail was just as good, and I can't be the only one.)

So how do we get the word out? FB and Twitter are great for this if one has more than a few followers, which I don't. But I would imagine that the editors and the contributors on TV Worth Watching each have a large audience. If I'm right about that, could all of you spread the word in whatever ways you connect with your viewership?

I am reminded of what a friend said to me who works for a non-profit that I think applies here, and with what to expect from the Republicans. He said, "We already have a no. Let's see what else we can get."

Comment posted on February 15, 2011 9:51 AM

Mara said:

Watching the Rogers/Pastore interchange was like watching a myth or a fable being played out in reality. If it had been scripted, it couldn't have been more perfect. he was truly one of a kind and I miss his unabashed pure-heartedness. thanks for posting this.

[What a great description of it. Thanks. And it's precisely why I'm leaving up this column, and that video, for as long as I am. The more people who see it, the happier I am. -- DB]

Comment posted on February 15, 2011 10:56 AM

Josh said:

I could on and on about how amazing Fred Rogers was. I guess the one anecdote that stays with me is that, of all the distinguished speakers that routinely visit Harvard - heads of state, captains of industry, the brightest minds of the day - the one who got (as reported at the time) one of the strongest, most emotional receptions on record was Fred Rogers. It so happened that the throngs of Harvard students that showed up were all once children - part of the countless children he spoke to, cared for & inspired.

[I saw him speak once, too, and he reduced an entire audience of TV critics to tears. TV critics. Tears. Usually, that reaction only happens while watching "Jersey Shore." -- DB]

Comment posted on February 15, 2011 12:26 PM

Colleen said:

Watching my beloved Mr. Rogers sparked memories of a Convocation early in my academic career. The keynote speaker? Dr. Loretta Long - better known to my generation as Susan.

All she had to do was sing "Sunny days..." and a concert hall full of undergraduates sang the "Sesame Street" theme song, much to Dr. Long's visible delight. Without PBS, that moment never could have happened.

With a little one due to arrive in my life in three weeks, I can't imagine a world where she can't sit with her Aunt Colleen and watch "Sesame Street". I may disagree with the use of television as a babysitter, but PBS programming helped my mother raise three daughters who love to read and have a healthy curiosity about the world around them. It's easily one of the greatest gifts we three have ever received.

[Congratulations on being an impending aunt. Stock up on Mister Rogers DVDs -- and before long, get the "Faerie Tale Theatre" set to be the best auntie of all. -- DB]

Comment posted on February 17, 2011 5:26 PM

human mathematics said:

Watching this made me cry, just like all those hard-nosed senators in that room.

Here is an honest question. If Charles Taylor and the people around him had watched Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood growing up, would Liberia have gone through violent revolution?

If we're looking for economic growth, let's not play around with chump change. What's the value of cutting violent crime, theft, and mental illness to 0%? The improvement would be orders of magnitude above the cost.

Comment posted on March 28, 2011 4:37 PM
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