Debate Club

Three Reasons for the Federal Government to Support Big Bird and PBS

By Elisabeth Jacobs SHARE

Thanks to Mitt Romney's comments at last week's debate, Republican lawmakers have once again struck up the drumbeat to de-fund the Public Broadcasting Service. Big Bird "is always going to be on TV," they argue, regardless of whether or not the federal government helps support public broadcasting. This may or may not be true, but it's not much of an argument either way when it comes to thinking about whether or not the federal government ought to lend some financial support to PBS. A more logical take would consider a few more serious points beyond Big Bird's livelihood.

First and foremost, one of the main priorities of government should be support for the arts and creative education, which is at the heart of PBS's mission. Public broadcasting is a public good, with a central principle being the provision of coverage for interests for which there is a small or missing market. This is why the Children's Television Workshop, which produces Sesame Street and cuts Big Bird's paycheck, actually receives very little PBS support. In contrast, PBS is a major supporter of the only television station that reaches much of rural Alaska. Contrary to what Romney implied in last week's debate, spending on public broadcasting has virtually no impact on the nation's deficit, which is largely explained by Medicare and the aging of the population. Indeed, just 0.012 percent of the entire federal budget goes to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the vast majority of that sum goes directly to local PBS stations. This small sum represents our nation's commitment to arts, culture, and education, and the use of television as a critical medium for connecting the public to these resources. This commitment is a key element of any developed, civilized society. To eliminate it entirely would be the beginning of an abdication of one of government's central functions, one that endures even in times of austerity.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Mitt Romney.]

Second, contrary to the arguments from those in support of choking off PBS's federal funding stream, private and charitable donations are not likely to make up the difference in PBS's budget were federal funds no longer part of the equation. Federal grants likely have a multiplier effect for PBS. In other words, every federal dollar for PBS generates additional private and charitable donations that wouldn't have otherwise existed. This is well-documented in the case of the National Endowment for the Arts, another frequent target of Republican critics. Research shows that, in case after case, every dollar of public grant funding for the Endowment generates seven to eight times more in private matching grants. The reason? Federal funding has a legitimizing effect for new projects, and a validating effect on existing ones. The same logic holds for PBS's federal funds. Moreover, history has shown that private donors simply don't step up to the plate to replace public funds when times are tough. During the recession, state funding for the arts dried up as state governments struggled to balance their budgets. Private donations did not respond commensurately, and the result has been major cuts to arts programming in the states most severely impacted by cuts to public arts budgets. In the absence of any federal funding, it's not at all clear that public broadcasting would survive, or at least not as we know it today.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

Third, public broadcasting remains a distinctly respected resource in the television marketplace, due (at least in part) to federal backing. For example, 88 percent of Americans see PBS as a trusted and safe place for children to watch television and visit online, compared to just 36 percent who feel this way about broadcast television and 34 percent who express this sentiment about cable broadcasts. More viewers trust PBS compared to any other television news source. It's simply not true that the proliferation of "educational" programming on the Food Network, Discovery Channel, the Learning Channel TLC, and other cable networks have made public broadcasting irrelevant. In fact, TLC provides an excellent case-in-point. Originally founded and funded by NASA and the precursor to the Department of Health and Human Services, TLC was once a public resource focused on truly educational programming. In the decade following its privatization, TLC's programming slowly shifted to accommodate popular (and advertisers') tastes, and today the network is best known for its phenomenally popular Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, a reality show featuring a sharp-mouthed toddler beauty queen and her down-and-out family—a show a diverse array of critics have called "exploitative," "offensive," and "a horror story." In contrast, today's PBS stands in a respected class of its own, insulated somewhat from market pressures, and federal investment is at least partially responsible for that distinction.

So, will Big Bird survive if federal funding to public broadcasting is eliminated? Maybe. But in the absence of federal support, it's entirely possible that Big Bird will no longer be brought to viewers by the letters U, S, and A. Instead, children may tune in to find Big Bird shilling for whichever soft-drink company or financial institution happens to have sponsored the station. Or they may find Honey Boo Boo on their screens instead. Like the vast majority of Americans, I agree that it's worth spending a small slice of our nation's national budget to preserve the option of quality educational television programming—even if it means borrowing a few bucks to make it happen.

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  • Elisabeth Jacobs

    About Elisabeth Jacobs Fellow at the Brookings Institution.


    Other Arguments

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