In Further Defense of Big Bird and PBS

During the presidential debate on Wednesday, October 3rd , Mitt Romney said to Jim Lehrer, the moderator, “I’m sorry Jim, I’m gonna stop the subsidy to PBS. I like PBS, I love Big Bird, I actually like you too, but I’m going to stop borrowing money from China to pay for things we don’t need.”

In response, Paula Kerger, the President and CEO of PBS issued a statement in which she made a number of very persuasive arguments in support of the station. For instance, she stated that the government gets an outstanding return on investment as the government’s investment only represents one-hundredth of one percent of the federal budget. She added that their programming was critical for underserved audiences who can’t afford pre-school, that over two-thirds of Americans oppose efforts to eliminate government funding for public broadcasting and that for every $1.00 in federal funding that is invested they raise $6.00 on their own.

Moreover, according to a Harris Interactive poll, Americans consider PBS the most trusted public institution and the second most valuable use of public funds after national defense. It’s surprising that Romney, as a successful businessman and turnaround specialist, wouldn’t recognize the true value of PBS and see the station as more than a government subsidy. Yet, as impressive as these facts are, they don’t tell the entire story. That is, what would happen in the absence of PBS? Would the marketplace adequately fill this void?

The marketplace does many things well, but television is a unique industry. It has been continuously demonstrated, for example, that mass media shapes our perceptions and behaviors. It’s why some people perceive the world as a more dangerous place than it is and think that most politicians are corrupt. As media expert James Steyer states in his book The Other Parent, it has also been shown by thousands of studies that exposure to violence in the media results in desensitization, fear and increased aggression.

The change in television culture from the Ozzie and Harriet programming of the 1950s is largely the result of the deregulation of the industry in the 1980s and the weakening of educational and informational programming standards over the years. Since that time, market forces have created a plethora of purely market-driven television programs. This isn’t to say that there aren’t good operators out there such as Disney and Nickelodeon. However, it may surprise people to know that six companies now control 90% of the media in America. This is down from 50 companies in 1983. These huge vertically-integrated companies that control content and distribution can actually limit diversity of thought and opinion, restrict programming choices and even create conflicts with the news organizations they own.

Though the Children’s Television Act of 1990 requires broadcasters to provide three hours of educational programming for children per week in exchange for the free use of the public airwaves, a study by the advocacy organization Children Now in 2008 found that the quality of educational programming had diminished over the years. This was because broadcasters were adhering to the letter of the law but not the spirit of the law. Specifically, the study found that only one of every eight educational TV shows was highly educational and that nearly one in every four, almost twice as many, was minimally educational.

It is with these facts and figures, and in this environment that we need to be making any of these types of decisions regarding PBS. We either need PBS or more strict government regulation of the media industry. We can’t do without both of them.