TV

If The GOP Really Defunds PBS, What Happens Next?

Getty Image / PBS

[UPDATE 3/15: Trump’s budget officially is requesting the end of all federal funding to PBS and NPR]
The Trump administration is officially considering defunding the Public Broadcasting Service, among other public services like the National Endowment for the Arts and AmeriCorps. PBS’ funding has been a political football for decades, and it’s not clear whether it will once again be punted or if the GOP will attempt to follow through this time. But, if it does, it may find that cooking shows and a cartoon tiger are more resilient, and more politically dangerous to attack, than they realize.

Trump can’t go after PBS directly. It’s the exact reverse of a private broadcast network; the network exists because the stations create it, instead of the stations being an affilate of PBS. The Trump budget would cut the approximately $446 million or so the government distributes to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which in turn spends the majority of that, over $200 million, on public TV stations and roughly $75 million of which goes directly to funding programming. PBS pays for itself with a mix of member station dues, corporate donations, government contracts, and, of course, viewers like you. The federal government provides, in the end, roughly 15% of the network’s funding, according to PBS head Paula Kerger.

In terms of programming, this would more or less mean that PBS’ shows would need to find more corporate sponsors, sell more merchandise, and hit viewers up for more donations. Streaming would likely become more important to the network, which already works with streaming services to distribute some of its shows. It would also likely mean the shows it buys and broadcasts from overseas, primarily British, would likely stop airing, which would be the end of shows like Poldark and Sherlock. Shows that can’t secure sponsors or cover all their costs would likely either see reduced orders or go off the air as well.

The bigger problem would be access to PBS in the first place. While PBS’ affiliates, several of which such as Washington’s WETA and Boston’s WGBH, will face budget cuts for their programming, the real threat is to PBS affiliates in poorer areas. It’s not infeasible that, if this budget cut goes through, poorer areas of the country will either have more limited programming or see PBS leave their dial entirely.

But this is extremely unlikely, in the end. For all the bluster of the GOP on the topic of public broadcasting, there’s a simple political reality it consciously ignores: PBS is probably the single most beloved and popular thing the United States government does. PBS works on a fraction of the budgets of the major private broadcast networks, and yet is still the sixth most popular network on primetime. The network has arguably created more beloved American cultural icons in its history than any other network and is especially an enduring presence in children’s television; Arthur is currently the longest-running kids show on the air. When she was rebuilding her brand after going to jail, Martha Stewart went to PBS.

Furthermore, the GOP has been trying to defund public media for five decades, and it has consistently failed. Newt Gingrich famously threatened to “zero out” the CPB’s funding in 1994; that didn’t happen. A 1997 vote to defund PBS by the year 2000 was shut down by the Republican-controlled House. George W. Bush’s attempts to reduce spending on public media were thwarted during his entire time in office. And Mitt Romney infamously got raked over the coals during the 2012 election for threatening to cut PBS’ subsidy during a debate.

Trump’s proposed budget cut will likely meet the same fate. Budgets are ultimately made by Congress, not Presidents, and Congress is aware that many Americans view Arthur and Rick Steves far more charitably than they do their Congressional representative. In the end, what may save PBS is less the fact that it’s beloved, and more that any smart politician fears the wrath of its audience.

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