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University of Wisconsin–Madison

The Ethical Character of Public Broadcasting

The presidential election campaign has stirred debate over the role of government, including taxpayer support for public service media. Much coverage has focused on possible cuts to shows like Sesame Street, and its iconic Big Bird. Long-time public broadcaster and executive Bryon Knight reminds us that funding for public media buys us more than Big Bird. It supports a locally based system of public service that is accountable not to advertisers and shareholders. It supports a service accountable to all citizens.

It’s not entirely about the money.  It’s also about accountability.

During the first Presidential debate, Governor Mitt Romney said “I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS, I like PBS, I love Big Bird. I actually like you too (Jim Lehrer).  But I am not going to borrow money from China to pay for it.”

And so the headlines read:

“Big Bird becomes a big deal in the political fray.”

“It’s not Wall Street you have to worry about it’s Sesame Street.”

“Million Muppet march in Washington D.C.”

No matter who wins the debates or the election the importance of public support for public broadcasting is about much more than federal tax money.

Photo of 1930s unemployment line with Big Bird character inserted

photo by MrKite129/Creative Commons

The Money

Public Broadcasting has long been a target of conservative politics.  They see it as wasteful spending, supporting the “liberal bias” of public television and public radio programming.  In the past twenty years many pieces of legislation have been introduced to reduce or eliminate federal funding for public broadcasting.  Each time members of Congress, including Republicans, have voted to continue the one – 100th of one percent of the federal budget which supports local public broadcasting through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.  This year CPB received $444 million dollars from Congress, for non-commercial educational broadcast stations, less than a dollar and a half per person per year.

Depending on the size of a station’s budget the amount of federal support a local station receives ranges from less than 10% to more than 30% of the station’s financial support.  Sesame Street is produced by Sesame Workshop which is a non-profit organization, receiving funding from public television stations.  Public Television stations purchase the rights to broadcast Sesame Street through the PBS National Program Service.  Sesame Street could survive without federal funding, even though it would be a struggle, so could public broadcasting.  But, it is not just about the money, it is about public ownership of the service of public broadcasting.

Accountability and Service

Public Television and Public Radio receive most of their funding directly from you, “the public” in the form of viewer and listener support.  You are very generous because you value the service of non- commercial, educational broadcasting.  Even if you are not a contributor you have a stake in public broadcasting because you are a tax-payer.  It is all part of public support for public media.

Much more important than the amount of money which public broadcasting receives from Congress, is the public ownership and accountability which comes with it. It is the ingredient which sets public broadcasting apart from all other media.  Tax support makes public broadcasting non-profit, accountable to the public, and defines public broadcasting’s mission as a service not a business.  Tax support is a wise investment.   It makes public broadcasting accountable to you.

Service, not profit, is the motivator for the 1300 local public radio and television stations in America.  Public broadcasting’s product is quality, informative programming.  Public broadcasting doesn’t have to attract the largest audience possible to sell advertising; its product is quality programming.  Take away the tax support and Congress takes away more than the money.  A privatized public broadcasting service will have less incentive to operate as a public service and more incentive to adopt new business plans which will look more like commercial broadcasting.  Public broadcasting’s success will depend more on its ability to compete for audience and attract corporate support.  The change will be gradual but noticeable.

As a tax supported institution, public broadcasting is accountable to you.  It measures its success by the service it provides you.  The small federal investment in public broadcasting ensures its accountability to the public and ensures the continuation of its core value of public service.

Public Trust

Public broadcasters know that their most important asset is public trust.  There are some services which tax payers feel good about supporting; public broadcasting is one of them. The service of public broadcasting is one of the most valued by the American public.  In survey after survey public broadcasting ranks high in value returned for tax dollars.  It is a trusted source for news, public affairs, education, information and children’s programming.  It is a valued return for a small tax investment that sets public broadcasting apart from commercial and cable broadcasting.

The bottom line is federal support buys much more than support for Big Bird. Federal support buys an entire locally based system of public service media that is accountable not to advertisers or share holders, it is accountable to you.


photo of Byron Knight

Byron Knight

Byron Knight  is currently co-director of the Editorial Integrity in Public Media project.  Prior to joining that project he spent many years in public broadcasting, most recently as Emeritus Director of Broadcasting and Media Innovations for the University of Wisconsin Extension.

As Director of Broadcasting and Media Innovations, Byron was responsible for Wisconsin Public Television, Wisconsin Public Radio, and Media Innovations applied to broadcasting and education.  Media Innovations includes research involving interactive/enhanced television, video delivery over Internet 2, and media asset management.

Prior to becoming Director of Broadcast and Media Innovations, Byron Knight was Director of Wisconsin Public Television for ten years.   Read his full biography here.

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