Big Bird is a Red Herring

(UPDATE: PBS MediaShift is running an extended version of this article, in which I flesh out my argument in more detail. Check it out.)

Every time someone threatens to cut PBS’s funding (as Mitt Romney recently did), its supporters play the Big Bird card. “Surely, Mr. Grinch, you won’t rob the children of their Big Bird??”

I’d like to call “bullshit” on that tactic. Using Big Bird as a symbol of PBS’s value is disingenuous and obscures the legitimate questions of (a) whether PBS is essential and (b) whether it should be federally funded.

I worked for PBS for 6+ years, and have in fact spent most of my career working to raise the visibility and impact of public media online.

So, I’m in the pro-public-media camp.

But Big Bird is a red herring. He’s not an apt symbol of PBS, a network that is also home to Downton Abbey and the NewsHour, This Old House and, yes, doo-wop shows at pledge time. PBS is a variety show and Big Bird only represents one act.

We may need Big Bird, but do we need PBS? Do we need the variety show?

Ken Burns says yes. In a recent op-ed, titled “Romney’s war on public TV is a loss for USA,” he wrote:

“In an increasingly difficult world to navigate, with multiple media outlets and a constant onslaught of viewpoints, PBS remains our shared space, one where we can experience the best in arts and education, public affairs, history, science and journalism.

It is a place where we can all feel at home.”

I don’t think so. While PBS is definitely valued by millions of Americans, it’s a stretch to call it a shared space. And the problem for PBS, trying to make its case to Congress and funders and the public, is that while it’s valued by millions of Americans, different people value it for different reasons. For some people, PBS is Big Bird, and more generally, a safe haven for children (I personally think PBS KIDS is a national treasure). For others, PBS is about cooking shows, or investigative journalism a la Frontline, or Antiques Roadshow. The aesthetic and audience and mission of PBS shows is all over the map, and it’s not clear, to me, what knits them together. What’s the common value proposition?

I believe passionately that noncommercial media is essential to our democracy. But I think that if the government continues to fund PBS, NPR, local stations and other public media organizations, the programming process at these organizations must be overhauled. Executives in board rooms shouldn’t be the only ones with a say in what makes it to the airwaves — there should be more accountability, transparency and responsiveness in order for public media content to truly meet the needs of diverse Americans.

As Ken Burns pointed out, PBS represents something like 1/100th of 1% of the federal budget. Or, as astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted:

Cutting PBS is not a smart or meaningful way to improve the economic outlook of this country. But that doesn’t mean the government should necessarily fund PBS. Just because something is affordable doesn’t mean it’s necessary.

What do you think? Is PBS essential — so much so that it warrants federal funding? More generally, do you think it makes sense for government to fund media in an age when anyone can be a media maker? (by writing a blog, creating a YouTube video on their phone, etc)

Some things I’ve written elsewhere about public media:

Other posts from this blog that you might be interested in:


9 thoughts on “Big Bird is a Red Herring

  1. Frontline, POV, local news coverage, PBS provides all of this and more. I think just because different people take different things of value from PBS doesn't mean it isn't a shared space – it just means we're all using different rooms of the same building. Cut out the foundation of the building, and we all suffer.


  2. Great post. I think the notion of PBS is fantastic, the idea that we have a network for and from the people. But you're right, the more we grow into our digital adulthood the less reason there is for a publicly funded TV station, the less reason we have for any network television stations in general. But here's where I get hung up: I listen to NPR religiously and highly value that shared space. I love that every city I visit has their own affiliate and programming choices, I love the community it fosters around the country. So what's the difference between NPR and PBS? I haven't watched PBS in ages, I'd love to know what current viewers think. Can we shape PBS to be more like NPR? What does that look like?


  3. I am firmly in the "Public Media is worth funding" camp, and I understand the point you're trying to make with regard to Big Bird. Sesame Street is not the entirety of what PBS (or NPR) provides to the public. I, for instance, prefer to watch political events on PBS mainly because of the lack of overt punditry in their coverage. Likewise, I've found many of PBS's documentaries to be enligtening.However….I, personally, think Big Bird is a perfectly apt representative when trying to make the case for continuing to fund Public Media, because (in my opinion), even if you strip away all the other things that Public Media does for us….even if you were left with *just* Sesame Street…I believe that what Sesame Street alone has done for this nation (and the world) is absolutely worth that 1/100th of a percent of the American budget that goes to PBS. Furthermore, people who might otherwise have no investment in Public Media understand the value of Big Bird. That Public Media *also* offers plenty more to the viewer/listener/etc. is really an example of doing amazing things *on top* of providing childhood education one of the greatest tools it has ever known to reach young children (many of whom might not have any other educational influence in their young lives).


  4. Jordan: I love the shows you mention, but I take issue with your metaphor… why is PBS the building, versus television in general? You love Meet the Press, for example — that's arguably a quality news show. Is it in the same building as Frontline? (Also, local news is really the purview of NPR stations, not PBS stations…)Dan: NPR does seem way more popular with our demographic than PBS (I'm assuming we're in the same demographic — I'm 36 and live in Brooklyn, and work in social media…) I think partly it's because with few exceptions, everything you hear on NPR has a similar aesthetic and tone – it feels like it's part of a whole. Whereas PBS feels random — if it focused on news and indie film, bundling shows like Frontline and POV and Independent Lens, then it might have a strong brand among 30- and 40-something urban educated yadda yaddas. But then there's Antiques Roadshow, and Legendary Lighthouses, and An Evening with Quincy Jones. I don't know… do you think I'm addressing your question? Or is there something else?Zach: I hear you. I do. But Sesame Street as a single program costs a helluva lot less than the overall federal investment in PBS, or in public media in general (PBS and NPR, hundreds of local stations and their infrastructure, independent producers… it's a varied ecosystem). So to say, "hell, that total investment is worth it because of how important Sesame Street is"… well, even if public media is a drop in the bucket, it still represents millions and millions of dollars, which begs the question: should millions of federal dollars go to the public media enterprise (all of it), as it exists today?


  5. I forget how much of PBS' budget actually comes from federal funds. I haven't looked it up in a while, but I want to say it's in the neighborhood of 40% – 50%. (Please correct me if you know.) Having lived in the middle of nowhere, with barely two pennies to rub together, I bristle when I hear politicians say they want to force PBS or NPR to fly solo. In the spring of 2011, wildfires raged across the Big Bend of Texas. This is an area that's rivals the size of all of New England – my home county alone could engulf Rhode Island and Connecticut combined. When I was growing up there, literally the only radio station for 100+ miles was a family-owned operation that signed on at 6AM and off around 9 or 10PM. The reach of the signal was maybe 30 miles in any direction. It still broadcast, but it finally has competition (which, I hope, is forcing it to up its game). Five years ago, an NPR public radio station opened one town over.I don't know what their on-air reach is, but let's say it's got an 45-mile broadcast radius. During the fires, the NPR station was damned critical to information dissemination for residents during this weeks-long crisis.Even when they couldn't broadcast, they were able to Tweet and update via FaceBook. I have given to them in the past and will continue to do so in the future, but I know my contributions aren't enough to keep the station going. In fact, the area is so sparsely populated and so un-wealthy, it's doubtful this station could continue on contributions alone. I'm sure there are PBS stations that serve similarly sparsely populated or unwealthy areas. NPR and PBS stations in DC, NYC, Chicago, LA, etc could almost certainly float without federal funding, but radio and TV stations in remote areas almost certainly couldn't. Those citizens in the far reaches are worth it to keep federal funding.I actually like the fact that PBS doesn't have a unified voice. I love that I can learn about the cosmos on Nova and then see Les Miserables live the very next night. I love that it's the channel I can always count on to expose me to great art, accessible science, cooking, travel and knick-knack nerdery; that I don't have to surf the TV. And like Zach, it's my go-to channel for things like presidential debates and conventions, because it's largely free of the talking heads enamored of their own voices, opinions and great hair. I love that my taxes and my personal contributions are, for the most part, enough to keep commercials out of the programming. PBS is a treasure to provide the programming it does, particularly in the Great Recession we've been in for the last 5 years. Not everyone can afford basic cable with Discovery, the Science Channel and A&E – and frankly, those channels are far more interested in selling to their audience than edifying them (ahem, A&E). I've kind of forgotten what your original point was … Big Bird. Red herring. Meh. Maybe. But he's symbolic of what I love about PBS: learning something without being sold to, and our children learning without being sold to. Good post. I definitely enjoyed reading it and will share it.


  6. To Amanda Hirsch – amandahirsch.comFrom someone with 51 years in public media.AH: The aesthetic and audience and mission of PBS shows is all over the map, and it's not clear, to me, what knits them together. What's the common value proposition?Response: Local Stations are the common value; the shared space is in each local community. Politicians use big Bird because they know a segment of their supporters will identify the symbol as one of public broadcasting’s most well known symbols. They also don’t know or understand public media and are pretty certain that their supporters have a visceral reaction that makes for invigorating gruel in a campaign.AH: But I also know that there's a lot of ego in public media — But ego can lead to insularity — over-confidence that the way you're doing things is the only way, the best way. And then when your detractors call for your demise, you are more likely to be defensive than to consider anew what it is that truly defines your value.Response: You may be concentrating on the nation programming but local producers win a lot of regional and national awards for their local work. My experience tells me that you have not met enough public broadcasting egos if you think they are defensive and insular. There is a growing number of what I like to call New Vision Stations. Change is a constant with them and they are prospering and changing as they adapt to changing American cities and states. I can recommend you to Minneapolis, Oregon, St. Louis, Nebraska, Iowa, Cincinnati-Dayton, San Diego, San Francisco, Houston, Nashville, and Las Vegas for starters.AH: To me, the strongest argument for federally funded public media is that Americans who can't afford cable television and who don't have internet access should be able to access quality news and information. Is all of this content essential to democracy? That's the million dollar question.Answer: Check how many local stations are at the center of congressional, state and local political debates and community issues that do not receive national attention but certainly do on a local level. And local stations partner with League of Women Voters, local newspapers and sometimes-local commercial stations and local cable outlets. Across regions, they partner with each other to increase the impact of their work. Check out Detroit in terms of what it is doing both locally and regionally with the Great Lakes area.AH: Who gets to decide what media the American public needs? The programming executives at PBS and NPR? The whims of private funders? … a lot of programming executives are making disparate decisions, without necessarily having accountability to their local communities.Response: Program decisions are made at the local level and for multiple channels. Local stations engage tens of thousands of volunteers and local community businesses and nonprofits. That’s why a very large majority of federal (CPB dollars) goes to the local stations. They are the center of the public media universe. They are not simply TV but merging with public radio, using all on-line distribution methods as well as on-demand. Public radio itself is using multiple channels and doing so successfully. A good local example is WAMU in Washington, DC.AH: … the role of the gatekeeper needs to evolve.Response: It has and it continues to do so at a faster pace every day. Again, look to what is happening at the local stations. Try to remember that PBS is a service organization that was formed by and controlled by the stations so they had an organization that could help local stations do collectively what otherwise could not be done efficiently by themselves. (See also American Public Television, the National Educational Telecommunications Association). NPR had similar beginnings and for similar purposes. (See also American Public Media and Public Media International)AH: What do you think? Is PBS essential — so much so that it warrants federal funding? More generally, do you think it makes sense for government to fund media in an age when anyone can be a media maker, by writing a blog, for example, or creating a YouTube video on their phone?Response: Funding is warranted from all sources, especially my federal government. Citizens, tax paying and not, who know that education and the arts are important are equivalent citizens to those who think the US requires more than 768 military bases in 123 countries. These citizens also should have the same respect by their elected members of congress as those who support the $87 billion in corporate welfare (see CATO Institute), who support the 66% of American corporations who pay no taxes (see GAO report), and the list is long.When I had occasion to visit the offices of members of congress, I carried with me a list of the earmarks funded in the prior session of the congress. What one realizes very quickly is that what receives federal funding has little to do with the amount of federal dollars available but with how those dollars are allocated. Priorities are determined by many means from the personal to the patronizing. What receives federal or any tax-based funding is indicative of the values of the decision-makers and how they want to represent themselves to the rest of the world and to their citizens. In the final analysis, it must be the citizens who make sure that their representatives know what they value and by what expenditure they want to be known.


  7. Letty and David, my goodness have you given me food for thought. What incredibly thoughtful and detailed comments – THANK YOU for taking the time to share. First, Letty — the scenario you describe in TX is exactly why I personally do think that public media is needed… but I'm not sure if the necessity extends to the cooking and science and arts shows you list. I LIKE that those shows are available, but it's hard to argue that they're as critical as community news in the face of crisis. Do I think our democracy needs the arts? Hell yes. But does it need television shows about the arts? Does it need Downton Abbey specifically, or a performance of Les Miz? These things may enrich lives but to me it's hard to argue that they're essential on the level, say, of healthcare, or schools. I guess I fundamentally just feel, too, like there's a disconnect between the generally older, generally white people who decide what airs on PBS and NPR and the populace at large. I want to see more true diversity in terms of tone and life experience and cultural context. David, I am honored that you read my piece and took the time to comment so thoroughly. I'd love to buy you a cup of coffee and have this conversation in person! This is why I think we (public media, this country) need to have an ongoing online conversation about these things — to bring together people with 50 years of experience (you) and 12 years (me) and everything in between, inside and outside the system, to really paint a picture of what public media should look like in this country today. To address some of your points — yes, many stations are doing excellent and innovative things all over this country every day. Pretty much everyone I know who works in public media in any capacity is doing excellent work, really. The challenge is the lack of unity — the lack of a cohesive portrait of what this all adds up to, the lack of clear systems for applying lessons learned so the whole can benefit from the experiences of the few, helping the best practices rise to the top. And then, of course, for all the pioneers leading the way, there are many, many people in management positions in public media who are not trailblazers, who are stuck in old ways of doing things. I think we need to reinvent how public media functions as an enterprise. Fair or not, we need to be able to assert our value in a competitive media landscape where others have far more dollars to assert their value. We can't be a ragtag group of loosely affiliated organizations and tell our story effectively, nor can such a ragtag group manage itself effectively, and succeed in the media business. We just can't. And as much as part of me wishes we lived in a world where there was such blanket faith in the importance of noncommercial media that we wouldn't have to put so much energy into asserting our value… I think the pressure to assert our value keeps us honest, pushes us to rise to the top of our game.


  8. AH: What do you think?……………………………………………………………………………………………….Amanda, I don't believe you care what I think. I honestly believe CPB/NPR/PBS aka "Public Broadcasting" is tone deaf to the issue of balance and media bias.The reality is "Public Broadcasting" tilts to the left. Frontline and POV haven't run a program in years that reflect the conservative focus.NPR doesn't have a single full time, on air talent that is readily identifiable as a conservative. Not one. On air reporters/ editors all seem to be from the cut from the same cloth. Professional yes, but at least one reporter covering Mitt Romney, refused to stand for the National Anthem and married his boyfriend in San Francisco. Nothing wrong with either, but I seldom hear the reporting tone of someone who attends church on Sunday, takes his/her kids hunting, reads the Drudge Report and isn't a union member. And this rural stations going dark canard is a joke when you realize the bulk of CPB funding goes to urban stations. Don't get me started on the millions given to the URBAN Pacifica network. Take their funding and give it to the poor rural stations. Seriously.In short you have a serious problem with almost 50% of taxpayers. Deal with the elephant in the room.


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