PBS President & CEO Paula Kerger came to TCA on Sunday to tell Congress what actually will happen if they cut funding for public broadcasting and to warn that doing so might anger their constituents – including Trump voters.
She warned those TV critics who complacently have been saying to her, “Well, you have been in this battle before, so you will be okay. Right?”
“I have to assume, as I think all of us in public media assume, that anything can happen. This has been an extraordinary year on so many levels,” Kerger said, in a stroke of understatement. “We need to be quite vigilant as Congress debates our funding that we don’t assume people remember the impact we have on communities.”
“I take it very seriously,” she warned.
In Washington, and among some TV commentators, PBS may still be perceived as an unnecessary “font of liberalism.” But that’s not how Americans perceived it, she telegraphed to politicians, citing recent studies conducted by Dem and by GOP research outfits.
She suggested lawmakers talk to their constituents, suggesting they might be surprised to discover a majority of people, including those who voted for Donald Trump, are not happy with the idea, and want suggest Congress look elsewhere to make cuts.
Kerger said, “Very significant decisions have to be made [in] what gets funded and what doesn’t get funded and we want to make sure, as those in power are weighing different options, we understand the consequences of any significant cuts.”
The biggest chunk of the funding, Kerger said, goes to stations, not, as has been argued for years, to help fund Big Bird or PBS HQ in Washington. For rural areas of the country, it’s critical funding. “If their money goes away, it’s an existential crisis,” she said, saying rural and “under-served” areas are most at risk.
Alaska public TV stations are “most at risk,” she said, getting about 50% of their budget from federal appropriations.
If federal funding vanished, “PBS itself will not go away, but the number of our stations will. If you are a station for whom 30, 40 or 50 percent funding suddenly goes away, there is no way you can make up that money. A big part of the country suddenly will be without public broadcasting.” Kerger said the real consequence is that there isn’t a Plan B.
Updating TV critics, Kerger said funding was not included in Trump’s proposed budget. In a nutshell: the House Appropriations Committee approved most of PBS’s funding anyway, while the House Budget Committee has recommended cutting. This will be reconciled after the August break, and the Senate has yet to weigh in, she said.
Kerger noted the irony if Trumpworld ended public broadcast funding this year, what with November marking the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967.
In March, Kerger also reminded Congress of PBS’ historically “strong support” among both Republican and Democratic voters – support the organization will need to fend off massive budget cuts proposed by President Donald Trump that would eliminate the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a major funder of PBS programming, as well as the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities.
“PBS and our nearly 350-member stations, along with our viewers, continue to remind Congress of our strong support among Republican and Democratic voters in rural and urban areas across every region of the country,” she said in a statement at the time.
“The cost of public broadcasting is small,” Kerger argued then, as she did again this morning. “Only $1.35 per citizen per year, and the benefits are tangible: increasing school readiness for kids 2-8, support for teachers and home-schoolers, lifelong learning, public safety communications, and civil discourse.”
Killing the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities has been a treasured goal of Congressional Republicans since the Reagan era “culture wars” of the 1980s. Those efforts, until now, have proved fruitless in the wake of widespread public support of arts funding.