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Bill Sanford: Public media funding is not about Big Bird

It’s been interesting that Big Bird has gotten so much attention in the media lately. Big Bird seems to be the new poster child when federal funding for public media is being discussed. The reality is that it’s not about Big Bird, it’s the entire public media system that’s at stake.

Nationally, a poll was conducted to see how much of the federal budget people thought was actually being spent on public media. The answers varied widely. Some folks thought 1 percent, others thought as much as 5 percent. In reality, federal funding for public media is slightly over 1/100th of 1 percent of the federal budget.

Overwhelmingly, Americans from both sides of the aisle consistently say PBS is a wise investment of federal funds. This has been confirmed year after year by extensive independent research.

Because it’s such a small fraction of the federal budget, cutting public media funding would have virtually no impact on the federal deficit. However, it would be the demise of the public media system across our country. For small stations like Lakeland Public Television, federal funding is over one-third of the budget. If Lakeland Public Television lost this funding, it would ultimately force all of Lakeland’s channels off the air and the region would lose local programs and services like our 24x7 educational kids channel, Lakeland News, local arts and culture programming, BSU Beaver hockey, local political debates, local documentaries and other local programs and services.

But this is just the beginning. You may think that a big station like Twin Cities Public Television (TPT) would step in and provide a statewide service. This likely wouldn’t happen, and here’s why: If the four outstate Minnesota public television organizations all closed up shop due to the loss of federal funding and stopped paying for PBS programming, PBS would lose more than $1.6 million in revenues that Lakeland and the other outstate stations pay to PBS for the rights to broadcast national programs like Nova, Nature, Frontline and educational kids programming. TPT would also be facing a cut of more than $2.5 million with its own loss of federal funding. With $2.5 million in reduced revenues, TPT would not be in a position to be paying PBS an additional $1.6 million to cover programming costs for outstate Minnesota, as well as paying for additional costs to operate towers and transmitters around the state.

The same scenario would play out over the entire country and the public television system nationwide including PBS would likely collapse. This is not just my opinion. This very scenario was discussed at a recent national meeting attended by station managers along with CPB and PBS leadership. The group agreed that this is the likely outcome.

In addition, last year Congress asked for an extensive independent research study to be conducted to determine how best to replace federal funding for public media. The results of the independent study clearly showed that there is no substitute for the federal investment.

The bottom line is this: 1/100th of 1 percent of the federal budget is a bargain for what we all get in return in the form of both public radio and public television for this very reasonable investment.


Bill Sanford of Bemidji is CEO of Lakeland Public Television.