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Big Bird Debate: How Much Does
Federal Funding Matter to PBS Anyway?

| October 12, 2012

Big Bird’s DNA is not trending Republican. (© FlaglerLive)

Are Big Bird’s 15 minutes up yet? Last week, Mitt Romney pulled public broadcasting into the presidential campaign when he said he would “stop the subsidy” to PBS, despite his love for the furry yellow Muppet.

The remark launched endless Internet memes, fueled late night television jokes and spawned a satirical Obama campaign ad(which the Sesame Workshop, a private, non-partisan charitable organization, hasrequested the campaign pull). Given the recent flurry of attention, we thought it would be helpful to examine how much federal funding actually affects public broadcasting.

How large is the federal subsidy to public broadcasting?

It’s not exactly breaking the bank. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the entity created by Congress in 1967 to disperse funds to nonprofit broadcast outlets like PBS and NPR, is set to receive $445 million over the next two years. Per a statutoryformula, public television gets about 75 percent of this appropriation while public radio receives 25 percent.

This amounts to roughly .012 percent of the $3.8 trillion federal budget – or about $1.35 per person per year. (Some global perspective: elsewhere in the world, Canada spends $22.48 per citizen, Japan $58.86 per citizen, the United Kingdom $80.36 per citizen, and Denmark, $101 per citizen.)

This sounds like a drop in the bucket. Why would Romney focus on such a small figure?

Because Romney’s approach is to target every government program he thinks is “not essential.” The candidate’s current spending plan not only calls for eliminating Obamacare and privatizing Amtrak, but deep reductions in subsidies to CPB and cultural agencies such as the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities – expenditures he says are “things the American people can’t afford.”

Public broadcasting also happens to be a popular target among conservatives, who’ve long portrayed it as an example of wasteful government spending (in the mid-90s, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich proposed pulling federal funding from the CPB altogether).

Romney’s no exception on the campaign trail. As ABC News’ The Note reports, last week’s debate wasn’t the first time Romney has suggested Sesame Street seek outside advertisers to earn its keep. At a campaign stop last December, Romney told voters, “we’re not going to kill Big Bird, but Big Bird’s going to have to have advertisements, all right?”

How crucial is federal funding to public broadcasting?

Sesame Workshop’s executive vice president told CNN last week that the company receives “very, very little funding from PBS.” Indeed, the nonprofit generated nearly two-thirds of its $133 million revenue in 2010 from royalties and product licensing alone, according to its website. Its executives are also handsomely compensated: former CEO and president Gary Knell (who now runs NPR) earned $718,456 in executive pay plus $270,000 in bonuses in 2010. So, as the Washington Post points out, Big Bird doesn’t exactly depend on the federal government for survival.

PBS draws roughly 15 percent of its revenue from the CPB. NPR’s revenue mostly comes from member station dues and fees, with 2 percent coming from CPB-issued grants. Member stations, in turn, receive about 11 percent in federal grants. According to thisCPB report, most revenue to both public radio and television (about 59 percent) consists of donations from individuals, corporate underwriters and private grants, followed by state and local support (roughly 20 percent).

But from a leverage standpoint, PBS says it’s pretty important. Each federal dollar local stations receive generates roughly six dollars from local sources as a type of bargaining chip, according to a coalition of public broadcasting stations, producers and viewers.

Are there downsides to scaling back federal funding?

Yes. While shows like “Sesame Street” may remain safe under Romney’s plan, its viewers in remote areas wouldn’t fare as well. Public television and radio stations in poor, rural areas depend the most on federal support to survive. So while large public television markets producing more than $10 million in annual revenue require just 10 percent of federal funds to get by, its counterparts in small towns like Bethel, Ala., or Odessa, Texas, may very well need up to four times that much to operate.

How many markets could be at risk today?

A CPB-commissioned study released earlier this year estimated 54 public television stations (31 in rural areas) in 19 states at “high risk” of going dark if stripped of federal funding. The study also found 76 public radio stations (47 in rural areas) in 38 states at “high risk” of going silent without federal funding.

Aren’t there other sources of news, culture and entertainment over the airwaves?

Yes, but public broadcasting has a specific mission of bringing a distinct brand of educational and cultural programming – free of commercial trappings – to a broad swath of the American public.

In establishing the CPB 45 years ago, Congress envisioned a broadcasting service that would encourage development of programming to address “the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, particularly children and minorities,” and which could be made “available to all citizens of the United States.”

In some areas of the country, public broadcasting still remains the only option, commercial or otherwise: at least 10 public radio stations around the country offer theonly broadcast service, radio or television included, to their community.

Have there been prior attempts to defund public broadcasting?

Yes. In 2010, a flap over the firing of former NPR contributor Juan Williams (now a Fox News contributor) for comments he made about Muslims heightened the cries to cut NPR off from federal grants. Last year, Republican lawmakers introduced legislation to block NPR from receiving such grants.

Today, conservatives also argue that the smorgasbord of media offerings renders the form of public television obsolete. As the National Review recently put it, “If PBS doesn’t do it, 10 million others will.” Others, like Time’s Michael Grunwald, arguethat the right to watch commercial-free TV “does not strike me as a basic human right” and that if “private funders feel it’s important for South Dakotans to watch Big Bird, they can make that happen with their own tax-deductible contributions.”

Can public broadcasting turn to alternate forms of funding?

Yes, but with varying degrees of success. In recent years, budget cuts have forced states to decrease funding for public broadcasting, the New York Times reported early this year. CPB also notes that revenue from individual donations went from $373 million in 1999 to $349 million in 2005.

CPB claims private advertising isn’t a solution — and at least one independent analysis estimated it could even lead to net losses by raising operating costs and diminishing support from corporate underwriters or private foundations. According to the report, “a shift to a commercial advertising model would lead to a chase for ratings and move public broadcasters off their fundamental role in lifting the educational and informational boat for all Americans.”

What’s the Obama administration’s stance?

In 2010, the president’s bipartisan deficit budget commission proposed cutting funding to CPB to reduce the federal deficit. But the campaign was quick to seize on the issue with its Big Bird ad. First lady Michelle Obama followed suit, telling Virginia voters this week, “We all know good and well that cutting Sesame Street is no way to balance a budget.”

The candidates aside, what does the public think?

A March 2011 poll shows that more than two-thirds of the public opposes eliminating government funding for public broadcasting. A more recent poll indicates that 55 percent of voters oppose such cuts to public television.

Suevon Lee, ProPublica

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20 Responses for “Big Bird Debate: How Much Does
Federal Funding Matter to PBS Anyway?”

  1. Frank says:

    1960’s was the last time this country practiced fiscal sanity. Bird alone is not the whole problem. The whole problem has to be dealt with otherwise the whole economy goes poof. If people have to choose between food and BIRD, I’ll bet they choose food. People like candy too, but you can’t eat too much or you die.

  2. fred8131 says:

    Let’s take all of Mr. Knell’s money, his “fair share”, to pay the debt down and watch how BB reacts.

  3. johnny taxpayer says:

    Yeah $445 million every two years is nothing… except when you start calculating how many citizens both middle class and ***badword*** wealthy are being taxed to cover that $445 million?

    I think Romney’s test is a good one, “Is this program worth borrowing money from China to pay for?” That’s what it boils down to. We’re broke. We’ve had trillion dollar deficits as far as the eye can see, cutting Big Bird won’t cover it all, but $445 million ain’t chicken scratch either.

  4. The several billion dollars in corporate welfare to “big oil” every year is also “not a thing the American people can afford.”

    Both obama and romney are in bed with big oil, wall street, corporate America and the 1%.

    This is not an election ~ it is a dog and pony show.

  5. Dorothea says:


    The grant was not stimulus money to provide jobs, but a grant from the Department of Health and Human Services to help curb childhood obesity. If you don’t think this problem, needs to be addressed, at least consider the high cost of treating kid related health issues that come with obesity.

    Excerpt from the website:

    Childhood Obesity Rates and Statistics

    “Children have become heavier as well. In the past 30 years, the prevalence of childhood obesity has more than doubled among children ages 2-5, has tripled among youth ages 6-11, and has more than tripled among adolescents ages 12-19. “

  6. rickg says:

    Everybody should get real here. PBS money does not amount to a hill of beans. To answer Johnnytaxpayer it would amount to about $1.25 per person. In any event I bet the returns one gets from PBS far out weighs the damage we do with the Pentagon budget.

  7. Samuel Smith says:

    Really, really hoping that Romney gets elected because the sheer level of devastation left behind after he and his friend loot america will almost certainly guarantee that the only vote for kooks like him will be via absentee ballots sent from mental hospitals.

  8. roco says:

    With wars, out of control inflation, illegals, high debt, and high unemployment why does Obama focus on Big Bird?? It goes to show you he’s not capable of dealing with the other issues.. I’ll bet he has Big Bird PJ’s..

  9. deana carmen says:

    Wow, $445 Million dollars? That is no drop in the bucket, especially when people are out of work and children are hungry. Sorry but I have to agree, Big Bird needs to find another source for his bird seed!

    • Magnolia says:

      How about China? Don’t see why Big Bird could not broadcast from there. We do not need to be funding this anymore. Our families need help, not the arts funding. Big Bird has become a one percenter.

  10. Joe E says:

    Just like every other person in the world, if you are having money trouble you start cutting useless spending. Does anybody even watch Big Bird. What about Amtrak, that is something else that the government should not be helping out.

  11. Magnolia says:

    I have read that the CEO of Sesame Street makes $645 million. Why is it necessary to subsidize him anymore?

  12. Magnolia says:

    One last comment. I love PBS and watch them all the time. I also donate freely when I am able to afford it. Surely those entertainers who now live in luxury in NYC, Hollywood and other places could fund some of their own entertainment now and not we the little people?

    This argument has been going on for at least two decades. We all see the wealth generated by the entertainment, amusement industry. Let them fund this, not the taxpayer. We need every cent we are earning now for our families. We are in trouble.

  13. Dorothea says:

    @Joe E.

    My condolences to you for not having the experience of watching Sesame Street. My kids watched and, as a result, learned to read with ease because they knew their letters and sounds long before they got to pre-school.

    The government supports roads and highways with our taxes, why not Amtrak? If you don’t like government funding for railways and roadways, I suggest that you write your polticians in support of a nation of toll roads.

    • Magnolia says:

      Dorothea, what has not supporting funding for Amtrak and railways that are not pulling their own revenue got to do with toll roads?

      We need JOBS first. You can’t squeeze blood out of an unemployed turnip. Big government no longer understands we cannot afford big taxes.

      We’re broke.

  14. Bronx Guy says:

    The percentage of the the contribution to the budget of the CFPB is irrelevant. The U.S. government should not be contributing one penny to PBS, an entity which makes millions of dollars. Do you realize the person who mouths Big Bird is paid over $300,000.00 per year? Nice work with no heavy lifting.

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