Press Tour: PBS chief defends Big Bird against Mitt Romney’s commercial plan

01.04.12 7 years ago 7 Comments
In a public appearance last week, Republican president candidate Mitt Romney expressed support for PBS, but also support for completely overhauling the way that PBS stays afloat.
“I like PBS. We subsidize PBS. Look, I’m going to stop that. I’m going to say, ‘PBS is going to have to have advertisements,'” Romney told Iowa voters, according to ABC. “We’re not going to kill Big Bird, but Big Bird’s going to have to have advertisements, all right?”
This, of course, would be a total upheaval of the way that PBS does business.
Speaking with reporters on Wednesday (January 4), the first morning of the Television Critics Association press tour, PBS President & CEO Paula Kerger offered her somewhat partisan take on Romney’s plan.
“Well, I’m glad that he said that he liked public broadcasting,” Kerger began. 
Kerger continues, “I know that this is a period in our country’s history where, as a nation, we do have to make tough decisions, but I also will tell you that in as we were as when we were founded we have always been an effective public private partnership of federal money, which makes up 15 percent of our funding. And, now, that’s an aggregate number. The funding that comes to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting goes largely to stations. And for some of our stations, it represents 10 percent of their budget, but in a number of stations, particularly in rural parts of the country, it could be as much as 40 or 50 percent of their budget. And that money could not be made up. We try to leverage it very carefully. The federal investment in public broadcasting amounts to about $1.35 a person a year. I used to say that would be the price of a cup of coffee but most places it’s not. And I think that what we hope to do and will continue to do over the next months is to make it clear to our elected officials that we have broad support by the American public.”
This was a key point for Kerger, who said that politicians on both sides of the aisle listen to their constituents and that she’s confident that PBS has the support of the voters.
Kerger cautioned that were PBS to shift to even a partially ad-supported model, it would inevitably impact programming decisions, which she strongly implied would not behoove future fans of public broadcasting.
“I’m not in the same business as anyone else that will stand on this stage,” said Kerger of the parade of network presidents who will be addressing the TCA over the next two weeks. “And if your bottom line is what is driving your business decisions, if your stockholders are on Wall Street, not on Main Street, you are going to make different decisions. That’s all. And, for me, the best, most recent example is the different turn that the History Channel has taken. Many people on Capitol Hill would occasionally say, ‘Well, you know, there are cable operations like History. Maybe could learn from them in terms of bringing in revenue.’ But, you know, they found that the way to survive was to create a very different type of programming. And programming like ‘Pawn Stars’ and ‘American Pickers’ is not the same as ‘American Experience’ and Ken Burns. So I’m hopeful that we will be successful in making our case.”
Romney, who won a commanding eight-vote victory at Tuesday’s Iowa caucuses, is hardly the only Republican candidate who would have PBS in his crosshairs were he to win the nomination and the election in November. 
The former Massachusetts senator’s closest Iowa rival, Rick Santorum, was a tepid supporter of the NEA in his early years, but he’s also advocated cutting the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, warning that “the ‘Sesame Street’ lobby” made such attempts difficult.
As a Congressman, Ron Paul spoke in favor of removing the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting from the federal budget. 
Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, among other variably viable candidates, have also taken aim at CPB, with Gingrich famously calling public broadcasting “a sandbox for the rich” back in 1995.

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