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Ryan Johnson, Published October 15 2012

Public broadcasting funding just drop in bucket of federal budget

FARGO – Big Bird and the rest of the “Sesame Street” crew would likely continue to thrive if the country’s public broadcasting lost its federal funding, Prairie Public President and CEO John Harris said Monday.

But the possible funding cut – something Republican candidate Mitt Romney pledged to do during his first debate with President Barack Obama – could have devastating effects on public broadcasting and would hardly make a dent in the nation’s $16 trillion debt, Harris said.

He said the funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting – about $445 million for the next year – amounts to $1.35 per citizen per year, and equals just one-hundredth of 1 percent of the federal budget.

“If that’s for balancing the budget, you’re not going to balance the budget very quickly cutting programs like this,” he said.

It’s a small amount for the federal government. But Harris said funding from the CPB accounts for 12 to 15 percent of Prairie Public’s operating budget in an average year, and for public broadcasting outlets in smaller markets, federal funding can make up as much as half of the budget.

“It’s not just Big Bird; it’s ‘Nature,” it’s ‘Nova,’ it’s ‘Masterpiece Theater,’ it’s ‘Antiques Roadshow,’” he said. “It’s all these other programs, too, that come under fire.”

Small part of the budget

Harris said several polls have shown the majority of Americans support PBS and National Public Radio. PBS estimates 236 million Americans watch its programming each year.

Still, he said there seems to be a “perception” issue – Americans have grossly inflated ideas of just how much of their taxes are spent on public broadcasting.

A CNN poll of 1,036 adults conducted in March 2011 found 7 percent of respondents believed more than half of federal spending went to the CPB, which spreads the money out to public radio and television stations across the country. In reality, just 0.014 percent of that year’s federal budget supported the agency.

Most of the Fargo residents who talked with The Forum outside the downtown post office guessed public broadcasting amounted to less than 1 percent of the federal budget.

Kris Schaller said he thought it made up a bigger chunk of the nation’s spending. But he said with such a small amount of funding, lawmakers should first look at other areas to balance the budget.

Audrey Farol agreed, and said the CPB should be “off limits” in the debate over what to cut.

“It’s important, too,” she said. “There are a lot of good shows and a lot of good things that people should have the right to see.”

Harris said if cuts are made, Sesame Street would likely survive. The television “icon” is distributed by PBS but owned by Sesame Workshop, which makes most of its money from licensing.

He said the other PBS shows that offer arts and cultural experiences, educational programming and a look at the local history and culture would take a hit if the funding stops.

Public stations are not allowed to run commercials, which means they rely more on federal funding and gifts from members to stay afloat, he said.

Harris said public broadcasters also have “stuck pretty true” to their mission of providing unique, educational content that hasn’t worked in the commercial world. He said cable channels like Discovery, Bravo and the History Channel all started out with a similar mission of being informative, but now rely mostly on reality shows because they’re more lucrative.

Prairie Public took in about $1.3 million of CPB funding in 2011, the most recent data available show. That was about 17 percent of the overall revenue, well below the $1.8 million in membership revenue.

Harris said losing the federal funding would hurt the station more than just the loss of that money – the CPB also secures music rights that benefit all PBS stations. If that went away, fewer stations could afford to be affiliated with PBS and NPR, meaning the other stations would have an even heavier burden.

“It doesn’t mean it won’t be reinvented or come up with another way to do it,” he said. “But the house of cards starts to fall.”

If you watch

What: Second presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney

When: 8 to 9:30 p.m. today

Where: Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

Info: The debate will be broadcast live on C-SPAN, ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and the cable news channels. The town-hall-style debate also can be streamed live online at www.cspan.org/debates


Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587


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