Should your tax dollars stop funding PBS?

Chris Schmidt, a senior producer with the PBS program NOVA scienceNOW, responds to the GOP talking-point that the public broadcasting system should no longer receive federal funds. The network currently receives about 17% of its funding from the government.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney even name-checked Big Bird during a presidential debate, and proposed that the lovable yellow fellow be sacked.

Writes Schmidt, "Considering that only about $1.35 per year of our tax dollars goes to fund PBS which allows PBS to avoid pandering to commercial interests -- against the $40, $80 or $120 dollars per month that most cable subscribers pay in order to be allowed to watch commercials -- I'd say us taxpayers are getting a hell of a bargain."


  1. To be fair, doesn’t some of that $80 a month go from the cable company to PBS? 

    To be even more fair, if we stopped government funding of PBS the $80 a month would go up a little as PBS has to up the cost to cable providers of their programming (and the cable company passes that on, with let’s say 10% on top of that for profit). 

    Plus, commercials for toys and cereal on Sesame Street. Freedom!

    1. As I recall, no, the cable companies pay nothing to the broadcast channels to carry local broadcast channels (including pbs).

      Public Access channels are funded by cable tv.

      1. I think that only applies to the broadcast content – not to PBS Kids or other cable only re-packaging of PBS content. I might be wrong though.

        1. PBS Kids is called Sprout, or is that another PBS channel?

          BTW, my wife and I do not let the tv babysit our two year-old, we watch with him.
          Just this week, our boy pointed at my 8″ Dobsonian telescope and started “Twinkle twinkle little star…”
          That does NOT happen with kids who watch Disney and Cartoon Network.
          Channels like Sprout should be available to every boy and girl, a bit of tax dollars in that direction is the right thing to do.

  2. I know this is crazy, but before commenting here, you might actually go read the entirety of Schmidt’s blog post, in which these and other questions are addressed.

    1. You are, of course, right…I tl:dr’ed. Regardless, I agree that we are getting the best possible deal by supporting PBS through government subsidies, which go more directly to creating content, without the side effect of omnipresent advertising.

      Edited to add – I think my comment still stands regarding cable only stuff like PBS Kids – if PBS didn’t get subsidized, the costs would still get passed on to cable subscribers, plus an extra taste for the cable company revenue. Nobody is saving any money by defunding PBS.

    1. “That’s right, kids. Corporations are people too. And you should share your allowance with them!”

  3. the free market won’t move broadcast content toward high art and other more educational content.  The truth is that both sides of the political field should want a source where people can learn about history, the arts, and other content that is not so polluted with consumerist values.  Sesame Street is a red herring because it’s a successful franchise that could survive on its own.  It’s the other shows that need subsidy and support.  

    1. Have you watched PBS lately?  You have Frontline, Independent Lens and Nova.  The rest is cooking and home improvment shows all full of product placement.

      1. Which can be traced right to the cuts in government funding from over the past decade and a half.
        Don’t point to something that is a direct result of republican and blue-dog pruning as a rationale for continuing the starvation (venerable right-wing tactic though: “look how crappy this thing we’ve starved half to death is! Maybe we should just put it out of its misery!”)

        I hate the glorified self-help infomercial shit just as much as anyone, but I know that they didn’t start to encroach on PBS airtime like a cancer over the last few years because the government was providing too much of a free ride…

      2.  First, PBS is both TV and radio, and my local public radio’s schedule is full of fantastic things – This American Life, Snap Judgement, Moth, Radio Lab, Fresh Air, BBC World News, etc, etc.

        And my local public TV station has tons of kids stuff, tons of news stuff, and also plenty of hobbyist stuff.  “The rest is cooking and home improvement” is weak.

        1. PBS is not NPR or the other public radio producers (not all of the shows you list are from NPR – there’s APM, PRI, etc.); I think all public broadcasting is valuable to society to the point of being priceless but it’s dangerous to defend PBS by citing NPR. To people not familiar with these things, NPR/public radio is a lot more easily defended than PBS and if your argument for funding PBS is “NPR!” that’s not a strong argument.

          PBS can stand on its own in terms of quality and value, as per your OPB link. I do think that with more funding they could do even better (wouldn’t it be nice to have an actual equivalent to the BBC in the US?)

          1. OK, let’s get technical.

            The federal government doesn’t even actually fund PBS; we fund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.  PBS is funded both by the CPB and by member stations; my member station, OPB, is currently in the middle of their fall pledge drive. And finally, member stations purchase programs from NPR, APM, PRI, PRX, etc.

            Look at my list penguinchris – that list of radio programs was just off the top of my head. 7 programs I enjoy on my local public radio station, and how many are distributed by NPR? I count 1.5 – Snap Judgement is distributed by both PRX and NPR.

      3.  I’m not saying that PBS programming is perfect.  In fact, I find a lot of it is not very good.  However, look at what channels like “History Channel” and “National Geographic” have become.  They are such pale reflections of what they once strove to be.  They used to have good content, but being in a purely competitive marketplace, we now have all these bullshit UFO/cryptozoology/ghost-hunting shows everywhere. 

  4. From my perspective, education has the potential of solving most everything that is rooted in fear. Consider the amount of tax dollars going towards war and such, to the amount going towards education. This says a lot about the people in the position who make choices that affect society, as well as the common person who sits idly doe-eyed. Breaking their back, and working their fingers to the nubs, worrying about the next iteration of electric apparatuses to make the Jones down the street jealous.

    In a nutshell… No

    1. “education has the potential of solving most everything that is rooted in fear”

      Is there any surprise why homeschooling is so popular?

  5. we should just give everyone whatever they want.  make them dependent on the gov’t for every facet of their life…

    1. No, no. We should make everyone dependent on the corporations for every facet of their life… That’s what Jesus wanted us to do.

      1.  It’s not like the allegory about Jesus flipping tables outside the temple  is against greed, and power. Let’s forget all about that, and the sermon on the mount. That’s the hippy Jesus, gross.

    2. Or, we should fund things that cost relatively little but contribute to our society in ways that the private sector can’t easily accomplish. 

    3. You drive on a highway lately or any public road? Ever been on a train cross country? A plane? All are or have been in the past subsidized or paid for by tax payer dollars.Does that mean you are “dependent on the government”? Also, gas/oil is deeply subsidized. Do you drive? Does any of this make you “dependent on the government”?

      EDIT: Or ever attended public school, from K to Grad? Ate any food grown in America, especially corn, but also beef or chicken, or whatever? Bought anything thing in a big box chain that was given tax deferred status to “bring jobs” (low paying jobs, now being replaced by contract labor from staffing agencies)? Ever called a cop or paid a parking ticket at a city hall? Or called the fire department or had to go to a hospital? Used a library to find a book instead of buying it?

    4. Listen, kid, I’ve been hearing that crap ever since I was at UCLA. I’m out there busting my buns every single night. Tell your old man to drag Walton and Lanier up and down the court for forty-five minutes.

  6. For those who assume that a PBS run as a money making business wouldn’t have to change, look at the history of TLC.
    Started out essentially as a PBS like entity, switched over to a private entity, has since brought you “Honey Boo Boo”, “Toddlers and Tiaras” and “Sarah Palin’s Alaska”.

    1. Seems like someone always pulls out the “why do we even need PBS now that we have all these cable channels?” every time this topic comes up. Which always depresses me, because if your opponent honestly can’t tell the difference between Frontline and Fox News or between NOVA and “Shark Week” then you’ve already lost the argument.

  7. Hey, here’s a fun idea to balance the budget and keep PBS (hell we could expand it), ready? STOP. WASTING. MONEY. ON. STUPID. SHIT.

    Short list of stupid shit:
    War(s) (The actual wars, the war on some drugs, and the war on decency and respect (cut the TSA and it’s handler the DHS)
    Propping up ruthless dictators as a means to “maintain the balance”(BS)
    Shipping arms to Israel (seriously, what the hell do you think they are going to do with them? But of course that IS the point isn’t it.)
    Take back the bailout money that got pocketed in the form of golden parachutes.
    Cut back or cut off any non-essential Defense spending (save the VA benefits and you know keep a standing army ready and shit like that just in case, side point, already made, but stop sending these soldiers all over hell’s half acre to stir up more shit that we will have to “defend” ourselves form when the next generation who saw their fore-bearers abused and want revenge)
    End the regressive tax system that favors the rich.
    Crack down on tax-havens, loopholes and other forms of “legal” baksheesh.

    Trust me this list could easily fill the rest of this thread. But the one thing we really don’t need to cut is the miniscule pittance that is “graciously” bestowed upon the poor sods that arguable still make some of the best TV in the US.

    Also, Romney! -YOU. ARE. A. BRAIN-DEAD. SLUG. (please go home and let some adults figure out what to do)

    1. Man…. I thought you were going to get all ranty there with the caps and all but I couldn’t agree with your sentiments more. 

      Also, as a non American, I feel that my judgement on your differing news outlets is somewhat more unbiased because the outcomes of your politics don’t directly affect my life very significantly and I just wanted to add that PBS newshour is the most balanced and detailed TV news I’ve seen that comes out of America. It’s the time they give to the individual stories, the balanced political discussions which take place (with guests who generally aren’t flag-waving idiots), and the international focus that make it stand out from the rest. Only someone who fears informed political discussions would want to cut its funding.

      1. Only someone who fears informed political discussions would want to cut its funding.

        Yup.  Exactly this.

  8. I feel like this whole PBS pseudo-issue is just a weak attempt by Romney to portray himself as the “candidate of smaller government”.  It’s asinine because the amount we spend on PBS is nothing compared to the amount we are spending in Afghanistan.  I’m sure the numbers spent on domestic surveillance are also quite high.  Guess those issues aren’t important to either candidate because we want to talk about FUCKING BIG BIRD.

    1. Agreed and it seems wildly bizarre to me that Romney would choose PBS as his example. There are countless other things he could have trotted out as his example as something to cut, but he chose something he must know a very large proportion of the population actually cares about and which hardly actually costs much money to the government (relatively). Either he, and his campaign, is unbelievably out of touch and/or incompetent, or it’s some sort of planned distraction.

    2. This Big Bird crap has NOTHING to do with balancing the budget. It is a way to whip up the values war. 

      Cutting Sesame Street and other funding has been a banner issue for the moral majority wing of the Republican party for years. There are those that feel that Sesame Street is too focused on educating kids about touchy-feely feelings and not enough on being respectful of your parents and God. Him talking about cutting Sesame Street was a direct appeal to those voters. We need to stop discussing this issue as if it were about money and start discussing this issue for what it is really is, an appeal to the Christian right and an attack on liberal values.

  9. Not directly related the topic at hand, but The Onion article that Schmidt links to is indeed an absolute classic:

    “I don’t like it when the science people talk about things no one can even understand,” said Rich Parker, an Ohio resident. “It’s like, just quit your yapping and dip the chain saw into the liquid nitrogen already.”

  10. To directly answer the question in the title of this post: No, I don’t want my tax dollars to stop funding PBS. In fact, I’d like public TV and radio stations, not just PBS, to get more of my tax dollars. Take it out of the defense budget. Raise my taxes. Either way.

    When you hear the likes of Nick “Fonzi of Freedom” Gillespie (the editor of Reason magazine) talk about how there’s no constitutional right to public broadcasting, like he recently did in an episode of On The Media, and so it shouldn’t be funded by the government, my reaction is, “Duh, pal, I know that — I want my tax money to pay for it!” I get the distinct impression that people like Gillespie don’t really care about whether public broadcasting lives or dies. They just don’t like paying taxes. 

    1. They like other people paying taxes for the trappings of society that they use, without a doubt. Objectivists have a poor understanding of scale.

  11. Kids, you think submarines and aircraft carriers are free?  Our Navy is in the worst shape it’s been in since 1917.  Trust Mitt.  Geeze.  A free Happy Meal figurine and a little imagination and BINGO, the kids have forgotten all about Big Bird.  And Jim Lehrer.

  12. TLC was founded by NASA and the Department of heath in 1972. We privatized it in 1980, and now it shows
    “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo”. Need I say more?

  13. On the other hand, if PBS were to come up with that other 17% through fundraising (I could afford to triple what I send them now), the amount of time they would have to spend thinking about whether their programming might offend Mitt or Rush would be reduced to effectively zero.

    1. “if PBS were to come up with that other 17% through fundraising (I could afford to triple what I send them now)”

      So do so already.

      “the amount of time they would have to spend thinking about whether their programming might offend Mitt or Rush would be reduced to effectively zero.”WRT Rush, that just doesn’t work. Independence would make them MORE of a target to crush instead of a bogeyman, it’d be a full-fledged enemy.

      1. Not buying it, sorry. A completely independent PBS would have no more need to avoid stepping on Rush’s toes than would BoingBoing.

        I’m at a loss as to why pandering to big commercial interests is any worse than pandering to big political interests, even on those infrequent occasions when they are not the same thing.

    2. Well, like it says in the article a lot of that funding actually goes to paying the costs of rural stations.

      Overall its 15% or so but for small (aka rural) stations its closer to half of their budgets.

      Which is also why it probably won’t actually happen.  

      Rural stations = republican districts.

      1. The BBC is funded by license fees rather than the general tax fund. Which allows them to be more independent than  the CBC for example. CBC’s government funding comes out of the federal budget and the Conservative Party hates the CBC, so they keep cutting their budget. The last number I can find has them down to $1 billion, which puts the less than half a billion dollars from the US government for public television in perspective.

        1.  You are joking aren’t you. Well at least in the BBC’s case. It’s not perfect, but it’s consistent in that every single government for decades has accused it of anti-government bias and attempted to interfere with its funding models, charters and management.
          As a European who lived in the US for a while NPR was the only radio station, hell it was the only news source that offered any kind of nuanced or in-depth analysis of international news. However, even it fell down during the Oklahoma bombing. during phone-in shows, it was pointed out quite early on that this was probably a domestic terrorist incident, eyt there was a clear “line” that it had to be some sort of “arab plot”. Caller after caller was cut off or hung up on for suggesting links to domestic terror organisations.
          It was depressing that I could hear they were reluctant to consider any other type of explanation of the enter into debate.
          NPR was clearly self-censoring in controversial areas.

        2.  As opposed to paragons of private enterprise such as CBS, CNN, and FOX?  Not seeing much in the way of independent editorial viewpoints there.  If you want to make the case that PBS is bad you might want to point out some news source that is actually, you know, better.

          1. No you are missing the point. “Good and bad” reporting is simply that which reenforces our political and ideological biases. Absent objective truth and universal standards (which cannot exist in a truly muti-ethnic state like Amerika) the best thing is to have lots and lots of openly biased and pointed sources. At least we know where these come from and they have no power to force us to comply.

            No, my point with PBS is that it is the reporting arm of the State – a powerful and dangerous state – and as such its POV is backed up by the most powerful military in the world – the most powerful and invasive police state here at home – agencies that control our lifestyles and constrict our beliefs within ever-narrower margins. The government should not have or pay for or control media – ever – on principle.

          2. I’m not missing the point — but I think you are.  CNN, CBS, and FOX have even more profound establishment biases than does PBS.  In my case, I do not consider “good” reporting that which corroborates my biases — I think “good” reporting is confrontational reporting whether it’s goring my sacred cow or someone else’s.  So in my case, you’re exactly wrong about what’s “good” or “bad” reporting.  I do have a clear, objective, and universal standard.  Reporting should not be quoting from a press report — which is essentially what it is on all the private, commercial news broadcasters.

            the best thing is to have lots and lots of openly biased and pointed sources.

            But that’s not what we have.  We have only a few sources all of which claim not to be biased, and all of which in reality have the same bias.  CBS and CNN provide essentially the same bias and call it “objective reporting.”  The difference between that bias and that of FOX is only skin deep — the marketing and target demographic are different so the message is altered to suit a different set of values, but the ultimate bias is the same: an establishment bias.  FOX is no better with confrontational investigative reporting than any of the other big news companies. This is why I mentioned “independent editorial viewpoints.” The editorial viewpoints of the commercial news sources don’t seem independent to me. PBS doesn’t seem entirely independent either, but it seems more independent to me than these other outlets.

            Can you provide some evidence that the federal government uses its funding of PBS to control programming and to force PBS to adhere to an establishment bias?  You seem to be arguing based purely on abstract principles whereas I’m actually trying to look at how these things work in the real world.  In the real world, CNN, CBS, and FOX aren’t fighting each other to present alternate views of reality, they’re cooperating to legitimize one (well, superficially two) particular views of reality and delegitimize any others.  I just don’t see the same tendency on PBS.

          3. the best thing is to have lots and lots of openly biased and pointed sources

            OK. So how does that mean we need to cut out state funded sources?

            To me your own logic would suggest that the more broadcasters, from the wider variety of funding sources would be beneficial. Which of course it is, because without it all we’d have in most the world is corporate rightwing crap shoved down our throats from the likes of Murdoch.

  14. Perhaps we could end funding for the defense department as well.

    If nothing else, I would love to see how much is raised through bake sales and pledge drives.

    1. Think of the savings – not just in money – but in young American lives. As well as an end to the American governments shoving its values down the throats of a world that does not want them.

  15. this is such a non-issue.  it’s mitt giving a shout out to the tea party folk, that’s all. nothing’s gonna happen to pbs.  just like obama’s promise to cut the deficit in half wasn’t real either.  

  16. PBS has been an important part of my life for over 25 years. From kiddie shows to travel, Nova, and some of the best current-issues programing to be found on TV. Not to mention Nature, live concerts, and amazing international shows pulled from around the world. Funding for PBS is one of the best uses for my tax dollars. Cut military spending, and give it to Public Broadcasting.

  17. The good news is that we can fact-check political claims and call politicians on their bullshit in near real time, an ability that makes both the presidential debates and their media purveyors less important.

    To make sense of gov’t budget figures, I divide them by the total US employment figure, 135-140M, depending.

    So, I know that while my annual contribution to PBS wouldn’t even pay for an 8 oz coffee, Romney’s $5T/10year deficit would cost one worker $3700/year or ~$310/month, and the 2012 US Miltary budget individual price tag is $4800/year or $400/month.

    Clearly, the GOP platform is based on plundering the bottom 99% wage earners.

    I suspect that I wouldn’t piss on the GOP if they were on fire but would like to be sure.

    Could someone please set fire to them?

  18. It’s pretty bloody simple. Broadcast spectrum, as currently implemented, is non-excludable (there is no physical reason why I cannot broadcast on the same frequency as an extant station) but rivalrous (doing so will screw them.) That makes it a common good, and that means that there’s not an a priori equitable pathway to private distribution, and that means the public, bu way of the government, is necessary (yes, necessary) to appropriate it in order for anyone to use it at all (as the technology for TV is currently implemented.) So we have content creators sitting over here, and the only sensible owners of the spectrum- the public, represented at the table by the government, over here. One imagines that they might want to trade…
    So, the government can auction the spectrum, which it does sometimes, at prices invariably too low, thanks to the joys of regulatory capture, or it can give it away for free in exchange for an a modicum of effort on the part of the receipients to serve the public interest by transmitting information useful to the public endeavor (the nightly news on the Big THREE)- which is a lovely notion that is damned vulnerable to quality control issues (exactly when does the government step in to say the nightly news is too terrible to inform the average voter?) Or, it can pay for content, as a representative of the public. Now, we aren’t especially fond of that, because government is an institution like any other that is devoted to self-preservation as well as its mission, and so we counterbalance that with injunctions to secure additional funding from private citizens. That’s PBS/NPR, and empirically, it’s repeatedly demonstrable that this funding approach produces more news with more facts, and educational programming that does more educating, (often with more people watching) than the other approaches to navigating this awkward public/private realm. Equally importantly, it’s the only one of the bunch (at least with NPR, I lack the data for PBS) that is growing
    More brusquely- government, to do any of its perfectly reasonable jobs, government has a lot of people doing a lot of things with a lot of money, and some of these will inevitably be stupid and wasteful. Regardless of whether it represents a suitable role for government, it’s a piddling expenditure next to buying aircraft carriers for hypothetical Pacific battlespaces and subsidizing staple crops, and when those remain sacred cows, wigging out on PBS is a pretty succinct bit of evidence that you don’t actually give a damn about the principles in question- you give a damn about the facts and perspective it presents, because to be a certain class of conservative today is unfortunately to be diametrically opposed to a whole class of simple statements of truth that public broadcasting is doing its duty and delivering.

  19. I’ll agree to cut funding for public broadcasting, down to 1/50th of the defense budget.  And you have to include the wars fought on borrowed money too.  Get back to me when it gets close; I’ll start the cutting with The McLaughlin Group. 

  20. Sometimes I think that if you offered the average American a box of cookies on the proviso that they had to give one cookie to the guy next to them, they’d just throw the whole box away.

  21. The Right Wing Insurrection in general has a serious problem with Public Broadcasting.  This is why James Murdoch famously wailed loudly about the “throttling” of the UK media market by the BBC  The Right Wing is also attacking the CBC in Canada rather relentlessly saying it should be sold to private interests.

    This is an ideological war.  Government must not serve The People only the Plutocracy/Oligarchy. The People in turn must be made to service them.  

    They really are The Borg… 

  22. The GOP needs to get over it’s mythological belief that the “free market” is a cure for everything.  The old saying “when you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail” seems to apply here; market forces are good for some things, not so good for others, and absolutely detrimental to some.  Would you let your local police force compete with a private security firm for your town’s law enforcement?  If they are going to keep costs down they will eventually come to a point where it isn’t profitable to investigate certain crimes.

    And if you think the “Learning Channel” or “History Channel” are good commercial alternatives to PBS, well. . . you haven’t really watched either have you?

  23. LOL politics. I am reminded of that act by Penn and Teller where they demonstrate the distraction and missdirection of magic. Very much the same thing. In the grand scheme of things, that need a fixin’ in the good ‘ole US of A, how far up the list does “supporting PBS” actually go? Top 100? But it will polarize and distract people from the real issues at hand. Sure it will be mentioned under the auspices of budget reduction which *IS* an issue, however exactly what percentage of the US budget do you think is going towards PBS? That is like the Canadian government saying we are cutting the 3M dollar gun registry in an effort to get debt under control. That value is so small in the grand scheme of things as to be absolutly meaningless. That was and this is a political ploy to appeal to the base, nothing more or less. 

  24. It’d be a fun exercise to take Federal spending to zero, and then–individually, person-by-person–ask people to commit their pennies, one-by-one to the things they want the federal gov’t to do, and see where that limit is.  PBS or wars, its all pennies. 

    We can increase the number of pennies we let the government spend, or decrease them.  My vote is for general decrease, and general efficiencies in the distant, removed, federal government.  Let the states and municipality (and churches and families and people) decide what they think is important to fund closer to home.

    (I love PBS, but I think we need to really think about how much our federal government needs to do, and should really do–and how much of it is fluff.  PBS can find funding elsewhere, if people really value it.)

    1. No.  Many many things must be done that are unpopular.  How many of us would pony up for the Bureau of Land Management, or the Department of Commerce?  Think of how many self-centered and childless people in your own community would happily slash funding for schools.

      If our nation ran on charity, it wouldn’t run at all.

      1. As an exercise, though (as stated), I think we’d find it enlightening where–and how many–pennies we’d like to apportion.  There are many unpopular things that government should do–and in fact that’s the best argument for the Federal government’s purpose.  Popular things can be done by us, the NECESSARY things, the ESSENTIAL things–the grimy, icky, gotta-have-’ems– should be done by leaders in the federal system.  

        The popular ones will live on regardless of the DC’s “benevolence.”

  25. I grew up friends with Craig Romney and playing at the Romney’s.  The only thing I remember ever watching at there house was Friday the 13th part 6.  I was seven years old.  So when Mitt goes after big bird I can only imagine a horrible future where 7 year olds are forced to watch terrifying horror movies.  

    If you want to hear more about the story.  I made this video about it.  Needless to say I don’t think Mitt should be bashing PBS without presenting an alternative.

    1. Excellent video, and a horrifying story.  The music drowned out your voice at times, but otherwise very succinct, believable and hard-hitting.

    1. You don’t really need to note that you’ve edited for line breaks. I do it to about every tenth comment since Disqus has problems with copy/pasting.

  26. To contrast, a TV license costs £145 per year in the UK, and that gets you half a dozen TV channels, a web catchup service, and a whole bunch of radio stations.
    Personally I think it’s worth it just for BBC4 and 6Music on their own.

    1. That’s a hell of a bargain.  Just for some contrast, contemplate that my monthly cable/internet bill is $140.  Sure, there’s about 300 channels.  Of which, we watch approximately 20 with any regularity. 

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