Big Bird and company have been collecting government welfare checks for the past 40+ years, but despite what the liberal media and politicians would have you believe, Big Bird, PBS, and the government founded Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), are doing just fine. In fact, they are doing more than fine, and collecting much less from Uncle Sam than you think.
In light of the outrage at Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney’s recent debate comments, and in order to really understand what it means to defund PBS, it is important that you have a little background on what exactly PBS is, as well as the CPB and America’s favorite street, Sesame Street. Many people confuse the three as one entity, but they are in fact many, separate entities. It’s also important to understand where their operational funding comes from. So lets start our look into the welfare of Big Bird…
In November of 1952, The Ford Foundation’s Fund for Adult Education provided a founding grant to form the Educational Television and Radio Center (ETRC). The purpose of this new entity was to allow small, independent television and radio stations to share their locally produced educational content for community broadcast nation wide. It was a genius idea that allowed small stations to fill their time slots with quality educational programming that they would never be able to produce on their own. The project for all intent and purposes was a huge success, and in 1954 ETRC became a full fledged television network. It produced 5 hours of daily content that was distributed to local affiliate stations around the country who would fill remaining time with their own programming. It is important to note that the early days of educational television where largely funded by private foundations, many of which still fund public television today.
As time went on, the ETRC began to grow and expand its reach, eventually ended up as the National Educational Television network (NET) in 1963. However, along with the name change came a change in direction for the organization, which was largely criticized for the perceived liberal slant of its programming and support for the network began to waiver. In 1966, NET’s viability came into serious question when the Ford Foundation made the decision to withdraw some of its financial support of the network over its liberal leanings, as well as its declining support from affiliates.
In 1967, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, NET was at the front of the line to receive financial support from the newly formed Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). Initially it was intended that the CPB would provide temporary support for the network while the CPB pursued its own public television venture, PBS. Even with the new government support, NET continued to see the erosion of its affiliates and soon was in serious trouble.
In 1969, PBS began it’s operations and at the same time, NET continued down its liberal leaning path and refused to stop airing controversial programming. Because of this, both Ford and the CPB withdrew funding from NET, pushing the network into a merger with WNDT-TV in 1970; where it still produces series including Frontline, POV and Independent Lens to this day, and continues to get financial support from the CPB.
In 1968, the Carnegie Institute awarded Joan Ganz Cooney an $8 million grant to create a new children’s television program and establish the Children’s Television Workshop, a non-profit educational production company behind the production of several educational children’s programs, including Sesame Street. The program was met with much acclaim, as well as some criticism largely because of its commitment to multiculturalism in its programs. Still by all measures Sesame Street was a hit. NET was the perfect venue for this new ground breaking program, and it was quickly added to the daily lineup. When the PBS network came online in October of 1970, Sesame Street was an easy first choice for the network. Again, up to this point, Sesame Street was largely funded by private donations from the Carnegie Institute.
As the seventies progressed, so did the quality and quantity of public television programs. The CPB continued to extend grants for production and distribution of high quality programing throughout its network of “member” stations which also pay substantial fees for the shows acquired and distributed by the national organization. PBS does not produce any programs of its own, but instead creates programing under contract with third party producers like the Children’s Television Workshop, and local member stations. PBS as an organization does not own any PBS stations, and therein lies the financial problem… as member stations are independently operated, usually by non-profit entities, colleges, states, or even local communities, much of their support funding must come from the communities they serve. In tough times, local stations are hard pressed to find financial support for new content and maintain their stations, so in steps the CPB, who offers grants to “prop up” some of these smaller PBS stations. Over the years, this need has diminished greatly as communities find more value in public television programing, and the States themselves have begun contributing to their programs with their own grants and funding programs.
In 2000, Children’s Television Workshop changed it’s name to Sesame Workshop, and having acquired the copyright and trademark rights to the Sesame Street Muppet characters from Henson Companies, Sesame Workshop began reaping substantial financial rewards for it’s licensing ventures of the characters and it’s programming, netting the non-profit in excess of $24.5 million in 2011. In other words, Big Bird made more money than Romney last year in just licensing alone, not including that additional revenue from corporate and individual support.
Big Bird is a 1%’er who is doing just fine and doesn’t really need a government welfare check.
In fact Big Bird takes hardly anything by way of support from PBS anymore, and is largely a huge supporter of the network overall. Today, nearly every home in America with children owns at least one Sesame Street branded product. The multi-million dollar international brand of Sesame Street is seen on televisions in over 140 countries in numerous languages. Big Bird is no small chicken and isn’t going away anytime soon, despite what the media would have you believe.
In 2011, according to its 2010 financial disclosures, the CPB had collected contributions of $449,919,620. Yes, you read that right, nearly a half-billion dollars in contributions. Additionally, $445.2 million was allocated to the CPB by Congress for 2012. To imply that public television is strapped for cash would be a false assumption considering the billion dollars on average it leverages every year. And it could be largely argued that the total amount subsidized by the government could potentially be raised by further private support. In any case, cutting funding for the CPB would not, as liberal comentators would like you to believe, result in the end of public television.
In 1995, when the Republican led Congress attempted to defund the CPB, liberals went nuts with the same “Kill Big Bird” rhetoric we see today. They did it again in 2005. Through their control of the media, they convinced the public that without government welfare, Big Bird was destined to live out his days in the unemployment line. Not wanting to wear the “I killed Big Bird” moniker, politicians in the end buckled to the pressure and scrapped the idea of defunding, and the welfare checks kept rolling in… and the CPB was happy to cash them.
PBS as a national entity licenses broadcast right of Sesame Street for its member stations, and PBS and Sesame Street have in may ways become synonymous. Nearly 60% of the funding of PBS’ revenues come from private membership donations and grants. Federal funding for PBS amounts to just 15% of its revenues, and much of the rest is solicited from “viewers like you”. Loss of government funding would not mean the end of PBS, but may mean that local members would have to pony up a little more support for their programs and local stations. In addition, there is nothing preventing member stations from accepting commercial advertising dollars, something many feel is taboo when it comes to public television, but a viable option to support the network just the same.
There is no doubt that programs like Sesame Street are quality programs that millions of moms depended on for those much deserved moments of peace in their households. It makes sense that government grants could be used to subsidize quality educational programming that would be made available for free to the public. But like most government programs, once the need faded, the government program never did, and it usually grew. In todays world, public television is a diminishing giant, and many argue that it isn’t needed now that other networks are producing quality educational programs. Once the only source for educational programming, we now have networks like the History Channel, Discovery, NatGeo, and others that produce high quality programming that renders much of the educational programming on PBS obsolete, or at the very least outdated. And while Sesame Street is a top program for youngsters, so are programs like Dora the Explorer and others that offer equally strong educational messages on competing networks. Even the performing arts have their network homes outside of PBS now.
So what is the real value in public television anymore?
For most, it’s simply nostalgia. But the fact remains that public television is an excellent source for quality programming despite the big budget competitors. But does this warrant more federal welfare? That is the question. Many say that the small amount given to public television amounts to a drop in the bucket in the scope of the national debt, so why bother? But the same could be said of most government programs. So knowing that you need to reduce spending, which of those programs do you choose? The correct answer is, “as many as you can.”
In the case of PBS, they already have a supporting revenue model in place, so government welfare is not really required for PBS to continue on its mission. What is really needed is all of the Americans who scream at the thought of cutting government funding for the network to make financial contributions to their local PBS stations. Something that few actually do. If the 236 million people who watch PBS gave just $2 per year, that would make up more than the amount currently subsidized by the government. At $5 per year, we could double their revenue. The best part is that we could have a huge benefit for public television and we wouldn’t be borrowing that money from foreign governments or the Fed to cover it. The problem is that most of the people who decry defunding are the same ones who give the least to the programs they enjoy. Can PBS survive without a government welfare check? Yes, as long as the people who value its services are willing to support it.
We have to remember that our bucket of debt is made up of a whole lot of drops in the bucket. When an entity as noble as PBS can survive without adding to our debt, regardless of how little the amount it contributes to it, it is worth looking at. Big Bird will be just fine.
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