Three Reasons for the Federal Government to Support Big Bird and PBS
By Elisabeth Jacobs , Fellow at the Brookings Institution.
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.
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.