Even at age 65, I fondly remember Sesame Street, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, and The Electric Company. Not, mind you, from my own childhood, which consisted mainly of Captain Kangaroo and Saturday morning episodes of Bugs Bunny/Roadrunner, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and Mighty Mouse. But rather, Big Bird, Kermit The Frog, Miss Piggy, Bert & Ernie all bring back memories of watching them with my own children during the 1970s and with my granddaughter two decades later. Sigh … what memories … and all thanks to the Public Broadcast System, aka PBS.
But last month came the news that Donald Trump wants to de-fund the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in favour of spending those dollars on military ships and planes, bombs and nukes. So I asked myself, just how much does the federal government contribute to PBS? Turns out, very little in the grand scheme of things. The annual budget for at least the past five years has been between $445 million and $450 million, or about 0.012% of the total annual budget. To put it in more personal terms, it averages about $1.35 per citizen per year.
A brief bit of history:
The early years of public television in the United States were dominated by National Educational Television (NET; founded in 1952 as the Educational Television and Radio Center), which relied primarily on funding from the Ford Foundation. Following the creation of the Public Broadcasting Act (1967), the government-funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) was established, and in 1969 it founded the Public Broadcasting Service as a successor to NET. The PBS broadcast network debuted in 1970. In its initial years, PBS featured such acclaimed programming as the children’s shows Sesame Street (begun 1969) and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1968–2001; with Fred Rogers), the performing-arts series Evening at Pops (1970–2005) and Great Performances (begun 1972), the science-oriented Nova (begun 1974), and the current-affairs show Washington Week in Review (begun 1967; later titled Washington Week). Viewers were also drawn to the instructional The French Chef (1963–73), with Julia Child; the political talk show Firing Line (1966–99), hosted by William F. Buckley, Jr.; and the drama anthology Masterpiece Theatre (begun 1971; later Masterpiece), presided over for many years by Alistair Cooke. – Encyclopædia Britannica
What are the benefits? Public broadcasting serves more than half the nation each month with the highest quality news and cultural programming; balanced, fair and nonpartisan news and information; well-designed and researched children’s programming; and award-winning cultural and educational programs that reflect the best of the nation. It reaches the people who, on every level of our society, from ordinary voters to community leaders to corporate CEOs, make the decisions in this country. Informing them well. It is well known for increasing school readiness for kids 2-8, support for teachers and homeschoolers, lifelong learning, public safety communications and civil discourse.
If the present administration fails to provide funding for PBS, the system will not likely die. PBS is funded by member station dues, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, government agencies, corporations, foundations and individual citizens. However, it would drastically reduce the amount of money the system has to work with, and most predict that stations in outlying and rural areas would become cost-prohibitive and therefore cease to exist.
Former commander of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), Retired General Stanley McChrystal spoke out against de-funding PBS, saying “Public broadcasting makes our nation smarter, stronger and, yes, safer. It’s a small public investment that pays huge dividends for Americans. And it shouldn’t be pitted against spending more on improving our military. That’s a false choice.”
One interesting note: Sesame Street has not always been kind to Donald Trump! Typically known for teaching lessons of sharing, compassion and kindness, in 2005 Sesame Street aired an episode featuring a character, “Donald Grump”, as a muppet with a bad toupee. There are only three known episodes in which the character “Grump” appears, each time playing the villain in a moral allegory. Whenever Grump visits Sesame Street, chaos is not far behind. For an interesting history of muppet Grump, check out this article in The Washington Post. It also includes a video clip.
Trump’s budget is only in the initial stages, and it is certain to undergo numerous revisions before a final product is approved by Congress. Other areas are also under the gun, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Education, and many others. In light of these, cutting out funding for PBS may not seem particularly important, but it is a very small amount of money that provides huge paybacks in many areas. It is something that every single one of us can benefit from and enjoy, whereas Trump’s proposed increases in military spending border on obscene. Give me Big Bird and Miss Piggy any day over more tanks.
I believe New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof said it best:
“So what if President Trump wants to deport Big Bird?
We’re struggling with terrorism, refugees, addiction, and grizzlies besieging schools. Isn’t it snobbish to fuss over Trump’s plans to eliminate all funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting?
Let me argue the reverse: Perhaps Trump’s election is actually a reminder that we need the humanities more than ever to counter nationalism and demagoguery.”