Big Bird’s Big Challenge

Arthur the Aardvark fought for his life last week. With the Capitol in the background and TV cameras rolling, the children’s character stood shoulder to shoulder with seven House Democrats to tell Congress and America why House Republicans’ plan to wipe out funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is wrong.

Trotting out a beloved character to tug on the heartstrings and stump for money for public broadcasting is hardly a new trick. Actually, it’s a pretty old trick, one that’s getting a little tired. And this time around, it seemed somehow sadder, more desperate—a flailing attempt to block what’s arguably the most serious threat that public broadcasting has faced.

“In the past, there was a strong, moderate Republican base of support. Now there’s an undercurrent that’s unsettling,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) said at the press conference that featured Arthur. “That’s why we’re pulling out all the stops. This could go sideways.”

Bolstered by the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans—who have long seen public broadcasting as a bastion of liberal bias—are better positioned to strike at the CPB than they have been in some time. And with the country’s $14 trillion debt suddenly a key political issue, the $445 million of the public’s hard-earned cash that goes to support more than 1,100 radio and TV stations could be a pretty tough sell for the Democrats.

If funding disappears, some 800 radio and 350 TV stations, along with programmers like NPR and PBS, will face tough choices: Go commercial; stay public and try to raise more money from cash-strapped Americans; or go dark.

Republicans contend that a zeroing-out of the funds for public broadcasting would not automatically mean the end of its programming.

“Shows like Sesame Street are multimillion dollar enterprises capable of thriving in the private market,” Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) wrote in a post on his blog. “From 2003 to 2006, Sesame Street made more than $211 million from toy and consumer product sales.”

But not all programming is as rich as Sesame Street. Programming producers like NPR and PBS only get about 20 percent of CPB’s dollars, and that money represents a relatively small percentage of their budgets. The rest comes from their member stations, and from
underwriting. Those member stations would be in trouble themselves, though. On the radio side, NPR affiliates in the largest markets might be able to survive, but those in rural and distressed areas, which depend on CPB for 40 to 50 percent of their revenue, are at high risk. NPR estimates that between 62 and 181 radio stations could go dark in the Midwest, South and West.

“There’s survival, and then there’s the ability to do business,” Paula Kerger, president and CEO of PBS, told Adweek. “We use the federal money as early seed money before going out in the marketplace [to secure underwriting].”

So some programming might survive, but other, lower-rated shows could not draw enough advertising dollars to sustain the public broadcasting lineup as it currently exists.

There’s the problem of a snowball effect, too. Without the government funding, public broadcasting would be left with fewer of its marquee programs (which often don’t get high enough ratings); perhaps more market-driven programming; and a lack of national reach.
That’s a less attractive proposition for its underwriters.

“We couldn’t make a business out of it,” said Mary Stewart, vp of external affairs for WETA, the public TV station that serves the Washington, D.C., market. “I don’t think the money is out there. If it made commercial sense, wouldn’t you have a commercial station programming what we are?”