A few months ago, Mitt Romney tried to resuscitate what now appears to have been a sinking campaign by loading the conservatives' silver bullet and aiming at a favorite target.
"I'm going to stop the subsidy to PBS," he said during a debate. "… I like PBS, I love Big Bird … But I'm not going to… "
Be able to pull the trigger?
Romney's gun had its firing pin removed in November. But the fact that something so lacking in capitalism as commercial-less programming should continue to be allowed to live irritates many in Congress much more than a schedule-full of sponsored offal. A landscape free of subsidized culture in which pay-their-own-way Honey Boo Boos can roam freely is Tea Party paradise.
When plotting their kill-the-PBS-monster strategies, it might help to recheck the math, according Neal Shapiro (right). In a recent phone interview, the president and CEO of WNET, the 50-year-old giant of a PBS member station in New York City, pointed out the amount of government money used to support public broadcasting is $1.33 per person, per year. (That's two cents less than would have been spent had a member of Congress paid first-class postage instead of franking three constituent letters.) The larger chunk of the public-broadcasting budget comes from private sources: viewers, corporations, philanthropists and foundations.
It's a model the godfather of modern conservative politics, Ronald Reagan, found to be a really good one. Shapiro shared how Ken Burns talked about his Civil War PBS series with the then-president, a fan of the work. Reagan asked how he funded such good work, and Burns told him that he had leveraged the government money he had received to fill in the larger amount through private funding. Reagan reportedly congratulated Burns, telling him that such a public-private partnership was the kind of arrangement he had been advocating for years.
Reagan's comments notwithstanding, "I think it will always be a political football, especially at the national level," Shapiro said.
He won't be surprised to see the issue raised again, though maybe not as loudly any time soon.
"Even they were surprised by the blowback they got," he said of the amount of negative reaction Romney's comment received.
The funding dilemma persists, even with the political warriors temporarily quieted. But finding money wasn't always as difficult. There was a time, especially in the '70s and '80s, when so much oil-company money funded public television that the network was sometimes cynically called the Petroleum Broadcasting System. These and other huge companies, spurred by CEOs who wanted to "put their corporate stamp on" outstanding shows, once underwrote large and ambitious programming efforts, Shapiro said.
"These functions are being taken away by marketing officers," whose need for return on investment outweighs the corporate cachet those chief executives once considered vital, Shapiro said, and added that public television's "corporate support keeps trending downward" for this reason.
"Our goal was never to get a large number of viewers," Shapiro said. Instead, he believes, PBS and the phrase "the best" are synonymous. The system, in his opinion, is stronger than ever in presenting and attracting the best, but now the funding to do that has to come even more from private sources. The challenge is to "do a better job of reaching out to the people who support (public television)."
WNET and Boston-based WGBH are the two largest sources of public-television programming. In addition, they partner with American Public Television in running Create, a network made up of reruns of popular public-TV how-to series — which at times draws more viewers than similarly themed commercial shows on Food Network and HGTV, Shapiro said.
Despite these accomplishments, he said, "[WNET] finished our year barely in the black. This is the dance we do every year." Breaking through the "why should I pay for it when it's free?" mindset is a perennial problem PBS stations face in tapping into viewer support. Oddly enough, though, public TV's commercial counterparts aren't as laissez-faire about public television's welfare.
Before moving to WNET in 2007, Shapiro's broadcast background was commercial, working in and running news operations at ABC and NBC. So his perspective has added validation when he says commercial broadcasters don't resent public television's attempts to attract funds and viewers that otherwise might be used to shore up their more mundane offerings. Public broadcasting began with the support of commercial broadcasters who, at the time, were "being hammered" for the low quality of their programming, he said. With PBS taking the high road and deflecting that criticism, commercial networks can amble pretty much as they please across lower strata.
"I don't think they want it to go away," he said.