Journalism in the Public Interest

Big Bird Debate: How Much Does Federal Funding Matter to Public Broadcasting?

From Sesame Street to Main Street, a look at how many tax dollars are spent on public broadcasting.


Mitt Romney's comments on cuts to PBS prompted the Obama campaign to run an ad featuring a dozing Big Bird.

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, has requested 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 statutory formula, 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 this CPB 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 the only 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.

Julie Meier Wright

Oct. 11, 2012, 1:54 p.m.

I believe that it would be healthier all the way around if public broadcasting could shed all public funding.  I support public broadcasting because it is the most civilized talk / news radio available today.  I am tired of the shouting, interrupting, and emphasis on the inconsequential on most radio and television talk shows.  If I were PBS I’d do my best to ask each current member to step up just a little as part of a campaign to end government funding.

Sesame Street has done more to educate the children of this country than most of the big Federal education programs. It is rare to find a small child who doesn’t know how to count or the letters of the alphabet by the time they are 4 these days. Most of that is exposure to programs like Sesame Street. What better investment than in the education of our children.

Given the state of the corporate controlled media, I would like to see the federal contribution to CPB doubled over five years, with the proviso that half the increase be used for news gathering and reporting.

Mike Germaine

Oct. 11, 2012, 3:14 p.m.

PBS is great television with excellent programming. My radio stays on NPR 90% of the time and I love the programs. I choose to donate to NPR regularly.  In the grand scheme of the things, the CPB does not get a lot of money.  Along with scientific research, the CPB is one of the best (or, least bad) things the government can spend money on.

However, as a matter of principle, PBS should not receive taxpayer funding. People should be free to choose what they watch, and free to choose which stations get their hard-earned dollars.  Otherwise, you’re just taking money from people who don’t watch PBS, for the benefit of people who do.

If you think PBS should get more money, then open up your own damn wallet.

Mike, has it correct. The value of NPR and PBS are in the eye of the listeners. They should be financed by private donations and of course the huge royalty stream generated by the characters. If they can’t live within those 2 methods of financing - they should down size to their funds available, like all citizens and income producing enterprises. No public financing should be involved - period!

How is funding the CPB any different than the other things a government does for the public, like libraries or roads?  These are public airwaves, like public roads and public libraries.  We can choose to listen to the public air waves like we choose to drive on public roads.  They are there for our benefit, in fact society’s benefit.  Saying no “public financing should be involved - period” is like saying we should privatize all libraries and roads.  How does that benefit the society?  It’s a ridiculous statement.

Government funding helps the poor, at the expense of the rich.  Of course Romney’s all for cutting it.

Mike, what you’re suggesting is that PBS turn into A&E, Bravo, TLC, (possibly) the Food Network, CNN, or any of a couple dozen other private culture/education/news channels that, after twenty years at most…well, crappy reality TV, trading on celebrity names, and commentary on real news is cheaper than actual work.

It sounds great to say just let the private money figure it out, but history says that it doesn’t work out.  History says quite clearly that you get shows where a cameraman follows some has-been celebrity and his dysfunctional family.

This is the same argument we all hear from the senior citizens every year who say, well, “MY kids graduated from high school, so I shouldn’t be paying school taxes.”  Because a school is clearly just a babysitting service and nobody else but parents benefit from an educated populace.

You might not want to watch an episode of “Nova” because it’s too high-brow for you, but as Congress put it in 1967, it’s in the public interest to make it available.  What public interest?  Ask your doctor what inspired him to take up his career.  Ask your kids’ favorite teachers what inspired them.  If you know anybody who owns patents from things they invented, ask them what drove them into technology.

It wasn’t a game show or a former celebrity mugging for the camera.

Mike Germaine

Oct. 12, 2012, 8:39 a.m.

Bruce - It is different because I can choose to watch NBC, ABC, CBS, ESPN, CNN, FOX, MSNBC, CW, AMC, TNT, TBS, CNBC, Discovery, History, A&E, TLC…There is a highly competitive market of television networks and I am free to choose what I want to watch at my own expense. Even the poorest among us today have access to basic cable for pennies per day. The government shouldn’t fund PBS for the same reason it shouldn’t fund the Discovery Channel.

However, there is no market of different road systems. I can only drive on government roads.

Make the case that PBS has great educational programs, the funding is small, harmless, and there are bigger fish to fry. But the general case for subsidizing one particular television network (or one particular choice in a marketplace of different choices) with public money is just indefensible.

The general public has it wrong.  The majority isn’t always right.
At a time of fiscal crises, TV and Radio is not an essential of staying alive. Bread, butter, rent etc is.  So cut the fluff.  America is in dire straights.  It’s not different than your own family budget - food wins out over entertainment in determining what gets cuts. 

PBS can made it on their own and still not change their format, if thats what you want.

The general public has it wrong.  The majority isn’t always right.
At a time of fiscal crises, TV and Radio is not an essential of staying alive. So cut the fluff.  America is in dire straights financially.  It’s not any different than your own family budget - food wins out over entertainment in determining what gets cuts. 

PBS can made it on their own and still not change their format, if thats what you want.  We need to grow up fiscally.

clarence swinney

Oct. 13, 2012, 9:12 a.m.

  It was not removed to aid obamacare.
It was funding cuts
Reduction in high subsidies to private Medicare Advantage plan.
Many enroll at a higher average cost than traditional Medicare.
Reduction in pay to health care providers like hospitals, nursing homes
and health care agencies.
It is a multi-year program.
The plan is to get more efficiency by providers.
Preventative care is part.
We (70%) have yelled for decades “Cut the costs of that Health Care Sucker”
Romney-Ryan are distorting the plan.
I scream when I get these outrageous charges: two tests find elevated blood pressure
and 8 hours in bed with nitro patch on chest costs $6000. Elevated blood pressure.
Emergency room. Night in bed costs $4400.
Sleep lab. Hooked to monitor. In bed 8 hours. $5500.
A supervisor and two attendants for the night.
Four rooms. $22,000 income for one night?
It showed me why the firm has so many sleep labs throughout the state.

clarence swinney

Oct. 13, 2012, 9:24 a.m.

Just Thinking
Obama will increase spending 8.6% to Bush 92%-Reagan 80%—why not brag?
1830 to 3510
3510 to 3800
We rank in OECD
Inequality # 4
Least taxed #3—Chile and Mexico lower—Percent of gdp in federal-state-local taxes
Least tax on corporations-#2
I ask pals how much are we taxed as percent of gdp in federal-state-local taxes
No one ever said less than 50%
Number is 27%
50% got 86% individual income paid `12.5% tax rate in 2008
Corp. paid 12.1% in 2011.

Cutting Big Bird and PBS is more than just the staging of positions.
It is a statement of values.

Even a penny for the public is a bad thing to the tinkle down view.

Just imagine Limbaugh being your source of information.

I suspect some of you watch PBS and listen to NPR and contribute nothing. I pay proudly for my membership. Perhaps I am paying for your viewing, and I know I am paying for many who do not contribute, either because they choose not to or they really can’t afford it. I’m happy to pay a little more for those who cannot. It’s nice some here feel they can speak for “even the poorest among us”. 
Your family budget is not the same as any other kind budget but I understand the frustration. I am frustrated a bit by the attitude of many who seem to think “if I don’t use it, why should I have to contribute….: to what may constitute the general good.  “Why should I pay taxes for schools? My kids are grown…  Why should I have to be taxed to keep libraries open? I don’t use them…  and so forth. 
Sorry, I’m old and one thought crashes into another.

clarence swinney

Oct. 13, 2012, 2:38 p.m.

Wants to cut taxes—-35% to 28%—eliminate Estate Tax—where one family owns as much Wealth as 90% of families—keep capital gains at 15%—where 25 Hedge Fund Managers made 22 Billion in 2010
and paid the low 15% and less than 1% or zero in Payroll tax—offset revenue loss by closing loopholes
Ha. Each loophole has proponents to fight for them—Increase military spending biggest waster of all—Our armies in 800 bases worldwide. We pursue bad trade agreements that allow unrestricted access to our markets. We cannot compete with $1 labor so watch our factories closing. 58,000 closed in last decade.

We must demand better self serving policies. Tariffs on imports. High tax rate to pay down that horrid debt like 1945-1980 tax rates and tax on estates. The Middle Class has been hurt badly with loss of good paying jobs with benefits. Protect our safety nets which have served us well for over half a Century.

Mitt is a rich mans candidate no spin can deny it. He will cut taxes for his rich pals and shred safety nets.
This Man scares me very much. I do no trust his motives

Clarence, You simply have a problem with facts, and observable reality, All Libs do - when they can’t make up their own facts. The ‘Amateur’ is responsible for @ 1/3 of our debt increase in just 4 years. This is not only stupid, its corruption and in many instances probably criminal.

The ‘Amateur’ hasn’t done one thing correct in 4 years!

Your intellectually impotent analysis of Medicare is appalling! You apparently do not understand how the hospital system is able to operate and serve all the patients that can’t pay! I would think a ‘Lib’ would be able to figure it out and even like it! Hospitals charge an amount over the cost to paying patients, so they can help non paying patients. The people who can afford care, are also paying for people who can’t afford care.

Clarence, it’s difficult to have an intelligent conversation with an individual who has no concept of reality! Mitt, should thrill and encourage every citizen to work hard and achieve all he can - This is what America is and will remain the only country on the planet where freedom and individual initiative are the compelling forces. If you can’t come up to the American Standards of individual responsibility - find another place to hangout, that fits your weak ideological standards - There are @ 200 of them!

Mike, what about the regions where the PBS or NPR station IS the only broadcast?  You know, like the article links to?

Or are you suggesting that we all be forced by the government to buy cable TV, maybe?  Call it an individual entertainment mandate, perhaps.  That’s a very Capitalist way of doing things, isn’t it…?

I also disagree with your analysis of the road system.  You could make contracts with your neighbors to pave their lawns to let you drive through.  Your disinterest in doing so is irrelevant.  And just because you want to drive to another state or cross a road sometimes doesn’t mean I should be letting Washington spend money to accomodate you, right?

BS7SDEN, I wasn’t aware that you had the authority to decide who could post comments, here.  Did you buy the brand?  Or are you just calling someone names to make yourself feel better for lack of a real debate, maybe?

We so often hear about down sizing the govt, not handing out monehy for those things that are deemed non-governmental. Ok. Now try this: ask how much federal tax money goes to all the state colleges and universities in hour state, private or state schools. Then ask about food programs for the schools. Then about just about everything else, including your roads and bridges…

Now: if you want to dump one item, why not dump ALL? and if you believe there ought to be selection,who should decide? You?

I am all for defunding public broadcasting under one condition - while we cut all non-essential spending as an austerity measure we also must defund religion and churches which generally do not generate
economic benefits to society, often distort market forces in health and education and in some cases serve extremists.

Mike Germaine

Oct. 15, 2012, 5:10 p.m.

John - I am not aware of area where PBS or NPR is the only broadcast. I have been in some pretty far reaches of the globe. Even in poor locations in Africa, people have satellite dishes and are watching dozens of channels. In any case, if you are saying we should fund PBS so somebody in a rural area has access to television, I think that is a backwards way to look at it. The problem there is poverty, not funding for PBS.

I am not suggesting the government force everyone to buy cable TV as part of an individual entertainment mandate or not. I don’t understand your logic there, at all.

As for roads, I think roads should be paid for by the people who use them the most. I think toll collection works pretty well for large highways. Yes, I don’t think Washington should be paying for projects that primarily benefit a locality.  Take the Big Dig, for example. It was a big improvement for the people of the Boston area. I don’t understand why the federal government needs to pay for that. Local taxpayers could have and should have funded it. By having the federal govt get involved it just turned into a giant boondoggle that cost 5x what it was supposed to and took 3x longer.

We need find $16T just to get back to the point where we’re broke—and that is not even counting the Medicare, Social Security, and public employee pensions and benefits to which we have committed, but which we have NOT funded.

Everybody needs to get it through their head: our governments at all levels are completely out of money. Only a dramatic restructuring back to essential services can even begin to make a dent in our fiscal problems. Given this intractable fact—and the fact that no politician will ever level with voters (because voters will never forego the ‘stuff’ that THEY now get courtesy of other taxpayers and government borrowing) expect the whole thing to collapse in the not-too-distant future.

CPB, NEA, Amtrak, etc., are completely unjustifiable. If we can’t even agree on that, there is no hope of addressing the problems—let alone fixing them.

clarence swinney

Oct. 16, 2012, 5:03 p.m.

My comments have been attacked with words.
Prove me wrong with numbers facts not feelings or opinions
I strive to be honest.

Mike, the article links to the coverage numbers, so I’m not sure how you can be unaware that any exist except by outright ignoring it.

Saying that some Africans pay for satellite service solves the wrong problem and, actually, you’re either recommending that everybody be forced to subscribe to cable (or satellite) or that poor people shouldn’t have access to, say, the Presidential Debates.

I also don’t think it’s a poverty issue:  If nobody lives in your area, nobody is going to build a tower except a public station.  If the people there were living off their Apple stock and oil holdings, there’s still not going to be an NBC affiliate in the area, because you can’t sell ad time in an area maxing out at a thousand viewers.

My logic is that of the Public Broadcasting Act, actually:  Public broadcasting “furthers the general welfare to encourage public telecommunications services which will be responsive to the interests of people both in particular localities and throughout the United States, which will constitute an expression of diversity and excellence, and which will constitute a source of alternative telecommunications services for all the citizens of the Nation” and “is in the public interest to encourage the development of programming that involves creative risks and that addresses the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, particularly children and minorities.”

Private industry clearly can’t do that.  No organization that needs to worry about paying the bills can, because it’s risky.  And that’s borne out by the fact that you can’t find anything but “safe” programming on any other station.  It’s easier and cheaper to produce reality programming and get corporate sponsorship.

Road-wise, my point was that your assertion that roads are different because anybody can create competing programming ignores that private roads do exist.  So dismissing (or supporting) one but not the other is somewhat intellectually dishonest.

I won’t claim to know exactly where to draw the line of Federal funding.  I do think the government is too involved where it shouldn’t be and not involved enough where it should.  I’ve been to Boston throughout the Big Dig, and I’m still not sure what the advantage was supposed to be, even locally, to adapt your example.

But, I think that public broadcasting is critical to having an informed electorate, and that makes it worth the tax money, just like roads are worth it by encouraging commerce and free association.  Every American deserves access to national news that doesn’t need to pretend that a new iPhone is newsworthy and avoid corporate corruption to sell more advertising.  It’s worth at least as much as warrantless wiretapping, indefinite detention, drone strikes, nuclear bombs, fighter jets that suffocate the pilot, the TSA, tax deductions for offshoring jobs, bank bailouts, and a lot of other things the government does with what is presumably our money and provide no discernable benefits to the public…

Clarence (and others here),

I suggest you take the time to read “USA, Inc.” by Mary Meeker at the behest of Kleiner Perkins.

It is an in-depth look at the USA’s finances done by an incredibly thorough financial analyst. You will quickly see that so-called solutions such as increasing taxes on the rich and cutting the rate of spending growth are hopelessly inadequate. Entire cabinet level departments must be eliminated (Education, Energy, HHS, DHS), DoD must be cut back dramatically, and entitlements must be restructured so that people living to the age of 80 aren’t collecting Social Security for 18 years.

If the USA were a corporation—operating under the laws that Congress has laid down for businesses—everybody in charge of the government would be in criminal non-compliance of their fiduciary responsibilities. Congress has under-funded the pension program (SS), has underfunded the health care program (Medicare and/or ObamaCare), has engaged in insider trading, has failed to report the true financial condition of the country to the “shareholders” (the citizens of the USA). Congress has provided suppliers what would be illegal kickbacks in the private sector, allowing the country to overpay for goods and services in order to receive campaign contributions from those who benefit.

If you strive to be honest, begin by making an effort to truly educate yourself as to the real state of the union. If you do, you cannot help but conclude that arguing about Bird Bird is the equivalent of worrying about a hang nail as your space hurtles into the sun.

PD, there are serious problems with treating a country like a business in that they don’t grow the same way.  Municipalities grow exponentially, because their strength is in interactions.  Corporations grow sigmoidally, tapering off to stagnation when the management overhead equals the growth.

The corporate angle is interesting, but stagnant companies go out of business.  Treating a mature company like a corporation would equally cause it to “go out of business,” which unlike the corporate world, tends to leave people dead.

(Let’s ignore the idea of calling Social Security an “entitlement.”  It WAS an entitlement, but all those people are dead, by now.  Today, we expect it because a chunk of our paycheck goes to funding the program, of which we see less and less.)

There are two angles that need to be taken to right the economy:

First, offshore subsidiaries pay no taxes, which is how GE owes no Federal tax in a given year.  That’s also why all the manufacturing jobs are in China.

Second, given the historical growth rates, we need to increase the ability for the people to coordinate and bounce ideas off each other.

One aspect, we need to give a middle finger to the major corporations and roll back the pro-corporate stance on Intellectual Property and probably do something about orphan works.  The reason we haven’t seen a new, non-bubble “dot-com” expansion is that there are patents on vague concepts like writing a search engine, showing a status while waiting for something to happen, in-program upgrades, and other very obvious things.  Because of that, people are terrified to start a software company.  On top of that, imagine if all those forgotten novels from the ‘60s were as available for indie filmmakers to adapt like they do HG Wells or Jane Austen.

On top of that, I’d say we need to roll out public Internet access.  With the amount of information and functionality available, it shouldn’t be costing hundreds of dollars a year to access unless we want to continue to exclude the underprivileged.  Let people associate freely and bounce ideas off each other, and you’ll see the economy expand.  It’s amazing that we finally have the tools for it, and we ignore the opportunity in favor of posting pictures of lunch on social networks.

It should also go without saying that we need to get rid of the anti-American laws, like the warrantless wiretaps, indefinite detention, bans on protesting where elected officials are, and everything else that chills discussion.  Even the threat, it’s recently been found, is destructive to economic interests, let alone the political.

We could also use better roads and public transportation, which would allow people to save money on their cars to spend it on getting more people employed (opening businesses or patronizing them).

You need to spend money to make money, and the fact that it’s not working says something about the ineptitude of the bureaucrats rather than the money spent.  Remember, the Apollo Program didn’t just get us to the Moon.  It invented a million things along the way that (because the government developed them and had no patent) spawned company after company and product after product.  That’s how you fix an economy, not by dismantling the infrastructure that protects the citizens from industrialists.

I’d also look at India.  A while back, the IMF came to town and demanded austerity.  Because the Indian government functions more like a confederacy, some states complied and privatized everything, and some told the IMF where they could stick their recommendations.  Guess which parts of the country recovered the best and fastest…

John Thank you for your excellent knowledgeable comments.

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