Are Bert And Ernie Earning Their Keep?

March 01, 1995 4 min read

Cable-television subscribers in Waco would still be able to receive the PBS affiliate from Dallas, which is carried on the local cable system, “but only 60 percent of viewers here have cable,’' White points out.

As Congress debates whether to end or reduce the CPB federal appropriation--$285 million this year--the public-broadcasting community has gone into crisis mode. Some PBS stations have run messages across viewers’ screens warning that the future of the show being aired is threatened and encouraging them to call or write Congress. And more than ever before, public broadcasters are playing up the importance of their educational shows and school partnerships.

Public broadcasting “is devoted to education in both the very strict and conventional sense and the broad sense,’' Richard Carlson, president of the CPB, said at a recent U.S. House of Representatives’ hearing on the funding issue. Education projects “would be the first to disappear,’' he said, if the CPB lost its federal support. Virtually all of the corporation’s budget comes from federal funds.

The goal of public television’s supporters is to convince Congress that “privatizing’’ the CPB by eliminating federal funding would simply create another commercial broadcasting network that would have little incentive to continue shows with small audiences or to pay for unique education projects.

Critics of the current system, however, believe there has been too much doomsaying by its advocates. They argue that public television and radio could survive and even thrive without an annual federal subsidy. The close-knit public-broadcasting community, they contend, is merely trying to preserve the status quo. If funding were eliminated, “you would not notice any difference on the air,’' says Laurence Jarvik, the Washington director of the Los Angeles-based Center for the Study of Popular Culture and a frequent critic of public broadcasting. “They are so overstaffed and have so many duplicate stations. It would give them an incentive to sort things out.’'

Key Republican leaders in Congress say that because of the federal deficit, funding of the CPB must be examined with the same scrutiny as the rest of the budget. “Nobody here wants to hurt the quality of programing that exists in public broadcasting, but we do have to ask, for the good of those children and their children, can we afford this program?’' Rep. Robert Livingston, R-La., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said during a House subcommittee hearing in January.

Others assert that the expressed willingness of such private companies as the Bell Atlantic Corp. to take over some operations of public television is evidence that the private sector could replace the role of the federal government.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting was created by Congress in 1967 to distribute federal dollars to producers and public television and radio stations. Its money currently makes up 14 percent of the total funding of public broadcasting; the rest comes from state and local governments, foundations, corporations, colleges, and individual donors.

Many Americans assume that the corporation owns PBS and National Public Radio, but it doesn’t; nor does it own any of the many licensed stations that carry PBS or NPR programing. It is merely a funding conduit.

This year it will distribute about $190 million to local stations for basic operations such as transmitting a broadcast signal. Smaller stations in rural areas like Waco rely heavily on these funds, sometimes for a third or more of their total budgets. It’s these stations that could be forced off the air if federal aid is eliminated.

In addition, the CPB will dispense about $67 million this year in the way of programing grants. Many of these awards are small, accounting for only a portion of a show’s total budget. But producers say they need this “seed money’’ to approach foundations and corporations for further funding.

Officials at both the CPB and PBS are busy touting their educational activities, hoping to stir up support and rally their troops. “We are now trying to explain our breadth of activities in education,’' says Carolynn Reid-Wallace, the CPB’s senior vice president for education.

In addition to the support it provides for programing, the corporation has awarded grants to create a computerized mathematics-homework service in 12 communities. And a $5,000 grant it gave to the PBS affiliate in Redding, Calif., helped buy equipment to connect the station’s data services with schools.

CPB grants also have helped pay for a weekly education-policy discussion on National Public Radio and will create “The Education Connection,’' a collaborative effort by 12 public-radio stations to provide educational materials over the Internet.

What’s more, says Reid-Wallace, who served as assistant secretary for postsecondary education under President Bush, “more than 90 percent of our television stations use our support for instructional television.’'

Even without federal funds, some educational shows and other projects might continue, Reid-Wallace acknowledges. “But under what circumstances?’' she asks. “We are commercial free. Youngsters can watch Barney or Sesame Street or Reading Rainbow without someone selling them Kool-Aid.’'

--Mark Walsh

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as Are Bert And Ernie Earning Their Keep?