Public Broadcasting: Should Congress Cut Off Funding?

Published February 17, 2011

President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2012 budget includes $451 million for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which oversees PBS and National Public Radio.

But congressional Republicans want to cut the CPB’s funding entirely, which could mean “Sesame Street” and other programs would be forced to find another network.

Republicans say taxpayers shouldn’t be footing the bill for the same sort of programming that the History Channel, A&E, and National Geographic offer commercially.

Democrats are pushing back announcing plans Wednesday to restore funding for Sesame Street and other kids’ shows.

Are the cuts to public broadcasting a case of Republican spending hawks gone too far? Or is it time for Elmo and Big Bird to get real jobs?

Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, weigh in.


The numbers of the day, as “Sesame Street’s” Count von Count might say, are “20” and “33.”

Sesame Workshop (formerly Children’s Television Workshop, Sesame Street’s producer) counts on government subsidies for 20 percent of its annual operating budget. That works out to about $37 million from various federal agencies.

But Sesame Street earns 33 percent of its annual revenue, about $48.3 million, from licensing fees on products ranging from Grover reusable tote bags and “Big Bird Sings!” CDs to the ever-popular Tickle-Me Elmo.

Another 33 percent of revenue comes from distribution fees and royalties. Not bad for a nonprofit organization.

Sesame Street, in other words, isn’t just a popular TV program that has educated and entertained millions of children for more than 40 years. It’s also a successful business built on taxpayers’ generosity.

Cutting federal subsidies for PBS, NPR — and, by extension, such TV and radio shows as “Sesame Street,” “Frontline” and “All Things Considered” — would not necessarily mean their disappearance. Instead, those programs would find other outlets and other revenue.

All of those programs currently receive heavy corporate and foundation support. And it isn’t hard to imagine most NPR and PBS programming finding a second life on satellite, cable and the Internet.

Whenever Congress cuts a beloved program, the standard retort is usually “This is a small price to pay for a public good.”

CPB’s current $420 million appropriation is akin to an accounting error in the federal government’s $3 trillion budget. But that’s the problem.

Government cannot and should not do everything “good.”

The economic crisis has forced everyone to sacrifice. Instead of increasing Big Bird’s allowance, it’s time he left his tax-funded nest.


The real face of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting isn’t attached to a Muppet. Instead, it belongs to a wind-burned rancher out in Western Kansas, a man who listens to “All Things Considered” on High Plains Public Radio in his truck while checking his herd.

This is the part of the world usually revered by Republicans as “real America,” and it is, perversely, the place that would suffer most if the GOP gets its way.

High Plains Public Radio — which provides NPR’s news programming, along with programs from the BBC World Service — gets roughly 35 percent of its budget from state and federal sources. And it would be devastated if that money went away.

Does the United States government face a fiscal crisis? Sure. But the CPB’s federal budget — $420 million in 2010 — isn’t even a drop in the budgetary bucket.

And the money spent on public broadcasting creates a public good far more valuable than those dollars would indicate: It creates a better-informed citizenry, the kind needed for a well-functioning democracy.

Republicans assert that the media landscape has grown so diverse there is no longer a need (if there ever was one) for the CPB. They are wrong.

In Western Kansas — and in rural areas around the country — NPR affiliates represent the one place on the dial where in-depth news and analysis can be found.

Take that away, leave all those Americans at the mercy of whatever lowest-common-denominator pap that for-profit radio stations serve them, and Republicans will have done a great job of making more consumers — but a lousy, unconscionable job at helping those folks be citizens. We owe each other better than that.

Elmo will survive; he’s got the royalties from toy sales after all.

But the CPB is more than Muppets; it’s a vital contributor to American life. It must be saved.