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Public Broadcasting Is Just That, PBS President Paula Kerger Insists — So Let's Keep It That Way
August 5, 2017  | By Alex Strachan  | 2 comments

BEVERLY HILLS, CA — PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger (below right) has fought this battle before, and come out of it in one piece.

That doesn’t mean the fight for public broadcasting will end the same way this time, though, she warned at the summer meeting of the Television Critics Association (TCA).

There’s a new administration in Washington, DC, and the broadcasting industry is in a state of flux unlike any seen since the early days of television, more than half a century ago.

Kerger famously took on Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential campaign, after the then-GOP candidate declared during a debate that while he “loves Big Bird,” he would cut subsidies for PBS. Kerger, who was in the middle of a family dinner at the time, picked up the phone the following morning and called CNN, where she was put on the air — live, in real time. Kerger said she found it “unbelievable” that Big Bird had become an issue, particularly in a presidential debate that was supposedly focused on education. Big Bird belongs to the people, all the people, she said, not just a select few: “With the enormous problems facing our country, the fact that we (at PBS) are the focus is just unbelievable to me, particularly given the fact that at another part of the debate, both candidates talked about the importance of education. We’re America's biggest classroom. We touch children across the country in every home, whether you have books in your home or a computer or not — almost everyone has a television set. We’re able to bring kids across the country not just enjoyable programs, but programs that help them prepare and get ready for school.”

That was then; this is now. 

Kerger reminded the TCA last weekend that Donald Trump’s proposed 2018 budget — which admittedly stands about as much chance of passing as the Russian October Revolution being declared a national holiday across the US — would scrap the National Endowment for the Arts and, eventually, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which helps fund PBS and National Public Radio.

Don’t think for a moment that can’t happen, Kerger warned, regardless of what happens to Trump’s budget proposal overall. Republicans have vowed to cut funding for public broadcasting since the Nixon administration. Now is not the time to assume a healthy future for PBS is guaranteed, Kerger said.

Public broadcasting is an investment in society, Kerger argued. It has a role in everything from early childhood education — Big Bird or no Big Bird — to encouraging civil discourse and informing the country.

The CPB was founded in 1967 under the Lyndon Johnson administration. It provides funding to support nearly 1,500 public radio and television stations across the US, including PBS and NPR. 

PBS will not go dark if the funding cuts go ahead, Kerger said, but some stations — possibly many stations — would be forced to close.

“This is a dynamic situation, and the outcome is uncertain,” Kerger told reporters. “As you know, we were not included in the administration’s budget. As the budget process moved to Congress, the House Appropriations Committee approved most of our funding, while the House Budget Committee recommended ending federal support.”

The differences will be sorted out after the August recess, Kerger said, when the debate moves to the Senate, “which has yet to act on our funding.”

Kerger noted that relatively few lawmakers regard PBS with outright hostility, and that may help save public broadcasting over the long term.

“It’s important for you to know that we have longstanding support from leaders in both chambers, on both sides of the aisle, leaders who recognize the educational rigor of our children's programming, the quality of our content, and the invaluable services we provide to communities.”

Those aren’t just empty words, Kerger insisted: Public broadcasting, which by definition reaches every home, is especially important “to the one in five households that do not have cable or satellite TV, and the 16 percent that lack access to broadband (Internet).”

Public broadcasting costs every US citizen roughly $1.35 a year, she noted, which is hardly going to burst the federal deficit.

Furthermore, PBS provides programming that the private broadcasters are unwilling or unable to provide, whether it’s music, dance and theater presentations from some of the nation’s most prestigious arts and music halls, or a sober 18-hour documentary series from Ken Burns (right) about the Vietnam War, or — perhaps most importantly — commercial-free programming for pre-school-age children.

Kerger readily admitted she’s hardly an objective voice when it comes to defending public broadcasting, but there is truth, and then there is truthiness.

“For nearly five decades, PBS has been relentless in our pursuit of the truth and our quest to find common ground on even the most divisive issues,” Kerger insisted.

The Vietnam War epitomizes the power of public (broadcasting), presenting content of substance, bringing that content to life in the community, and encouraging a civil discourse, all with the goal of making a difference in people’s lives. Now, while some in Washington question the value of public media, most of our leaders recognize that the American people steadfastly support PBS and their local stations. For the 14th year in a row, Americans ranked PBS the most trusted national institution. A recent bipartisan national survey found that more than seven in ten voters representing all political stripes oppose the elimination of federal funding.”

Make no mistake, the situation facing the CPB — and by extension PBS and NPR — is serious, Kerger said.

“There are some who have framed the question the following way:  ‘Well, you’ve been in this battle before. So you’ll be okay, right?’ Well, I have to assume — as I think all of us in public media assume — that anything can happen. This has been an extraordinary year, on so many different levels. I think we need to be vigilant that, as Congress now debates our funding, we don’t assume that people remember the impact we have in communities and fully understand the reach and presence of our local stations across this country.

“So what we have done . . . and what we will continue to do, as this debate rages on, is (realize that) significant decisions are going to be made about what gets funded and what doesn’t get funded. I want to make sure that when those in power who make those decisions are weighing different options, they understand the consequence of any significant cut in funding (to PBS). So our stations around the country have reached out to legislators, because at the end of the day — and I work very hard at trying to be a reasonable spokesperson for public broadcasting — I know that what legislators most care about is the impact in their own communities. They want to hear from constituents. So we’ve encouraged people around the country that, if they care about public broadcasting in their community, they need to let legislators know.”

A handful of private corporations have stepped in to sponsor certain PBS programs. Rebecca Eaton (right center), the executive producer of Masterpiece — co-producer of Poldark, Endeavour, Grantchester, The Durrells in Corfu and Victoria (top), among others — noted that Viking River Cruises, which has underwritten Masterpiece for the past several years, has reaffirmed their commitment to PBS’s Sunday drama showcase throughout 2018.

“We are hugely grateful for that and completely dependent on them, as well as PBS, as well as the extremely generous people who donate to the Masterpiece Trust,” Eaton said. “These are individuals who give us money, not to an endowment, but to spend down money to buy these programs.  So I want to go on record with telling you that.”

Thanks to organizations like The Better Angels Society, PBS has found a way, too, to continue financing Ken Burns’ projects, even after General Motors bailed out — reluctantly — as Burns’ corporate sponsor in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. According to a 2009 report in the New York Times, General Motors covered as much as 35 percent of Burns’ production budgets, going back to The Civil War, and in some years even provided money for education and marketing campaigns. It’s no exaggeration to say, as historian Stephen Ambrose has said, that “more Americans get their history from Ken Burns than any other source.”

In his own press session later in the day, Burns — independent of anything to do with The Vietnam War (below) — once again stated the case for public broadcasting. He spoke from the heart — off the cuff, from the top of his head, without seeming to be rehearsed or referring to pre-prepared notes.

“I have testified many times on behalf of the National Endowment for the Arts, but also the National Endowment for the Humanities,” Burns said. “They go together. And particularly for all of us in public broadcasting, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting provides a significantly greater percentage of the money per budget on average than the endowments. The National Endowment for the Humanities, for example, was responsible for a third of the budget for The Civil War.

“It has taken hit after hit after hit. I’ve been up and testified on the Senate and House side many times.  I think they’re hugely important and no more important than they are right now. Having a free press, having an independent press, having free history, an independent history, is incredibly important, particularly as we begin to feel the quicksand of those who are willing to manipulate the truth and have alternative facts or false facts, and things like that.

“I remember testifying, ironically, in front of the John McCain subcommittee on the Senate side in the mid-1990s, which initiated my friendship with him.

“I said then that these minuscule budgets, you know, point-zero-two of the federal budget, mean really nothing to the bottom line. They’re just ideological footballs. Yet we reach almost every state in the union. This system of more than 350 stations — people assume that we’re there for Nob Hill and Beacon Hill, when in fact some of our best ratings are in Alaska and Arkansas and West Virginia and Oklahoma and states like that. This is really who we’re talking to. We’re trying so hard as a network to reach out to all Americans, with a brand they can feel comfortable with. So while we count on the marketplace to do lots of things in our lives— and it’s a wonderful, positive element in our lives — the marketplace doesn't come to your house at 3:00 a.m. when it’s on fire. The marketplace does not have boots on the ground in Afghanistan at this moment.  And while I wouldn’t ever suggest that public broadcasting has anything to do with the defense of the country, I think with every fiber of my being that it makes our country worth defending by what it has added to our national conversation.”

For her part, Kerger was reluctant to be seen constantly banging on the same drum over and over again, but the situation is serious, she said.

“If federal funding goes away, PBS itself will not go away — but a number of our stations will,” Kerger said. “If you’re a station for whom 30 percent or 40 percent or 50 percent of your funding is suddenly pulled away, there’s no way you can make up that money. So there’ll be large parts of the country that will suddenly be without public broadcasting — and, I would argue, many communities that rely the most on what we do.”

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By the "Free Market" approach, yes, the better funded geography will have -- it is the self assigned mission that PBS/NPR reach lower density, underserved communities.
These will be hurt.
Is there no community service worthy of the support of community?
Burns accurately referred to Fire Departments. I would add Libraries. Law Enforcement. There are more.
Our taxes are one contribution to community support.
We need more community spirit now, not less.
Not everything should be measured by a financial Darwinism.
Aug 8, 2017   |  Reply
George Ashur
"Public broadcasting is an investment in society, Kerger argued. It has a role in everything from early childhood education — Big Bird or no Big Bird — to encouraging civil discourse and informing the country." -- Agree 100%. That does not mean, however, that the federal government has to sponsor it. If people value PBS, they will support it out of their own pockets (and, if they are not willing to do that, then perhaps they don't really value it.)
Aug 6, 2017   |  Reply
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