Big Bird is not the problemPublished 12:16pm Wednesday, October 31, 2012
By Eric Olson
It’s been interesting that Big Bird has received 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 this discussion should not be about Big Bird, cute as he is. Rather, we should have a frank and serious talk about all of our nation’s non-profit media operations, including KSMQ-TV. For the past 40 years, KSMQ has been the PBS affiliate licensed to serve southeastern Minnesota and northeastern Iowa, including the communities of Austin, Albert Lea, Rochester, Owatonna, Mason City, portions of Mankato and all places in between.
Recently, a national 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. Actually, federal funding for public media is slightly over 1/100 of 1 percent, or 0.01 percent, of the federal budget. Overwhelmingly, Americans from both sides of the political aisle consistently say the Public Broadcasting Service is a wise investment of federal funds.
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 mean the demise of the public media system across our country. For small stations like KSMQ Public Television, federal funding represents well over one-third of our total budget. If KSMQ Public Television lost this funding, it would ultimately force all four KSMQ television channels off the air, and our region would lose award-winning local programs and other public services, to include the production and airing of local election roundtables, our weekly public affairs program “On Q,” and our local feature productions “Off 90,” “Farm Connections” and “Garden Connections.” Not only does KSMQ-TV create these programs, we do so mindful of our region’s social values. KSMQ’s programs look, sound, and feel unique because we make them right here in southeastern Minnesota.
You may think that a big PBS 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 Minnesota public TV stations serving greater Minnesota all closed up shop due to the loss of federal funding and stopped paying for PBS programming, PBS would lose over $1.6 million in revenue that KSMQ and the other outstate stations pay for the rights to broadcast national programs. TPT would also face a cut of over $2.5 million with its own loss of federal funding. With $2.5 million in reduced revenue, TPT would not be unable to pay PBS $1.6 million for Greater Minnesota programming or pay additional costs to operate towers and transmitters around the state. The local programming I referenced earlier would likely cease to exist. The social values that would be embedded within any programming created under this scenario would be someone else’s values — not those engrained within residents of southeastern Minnesota.
The same scenario would play out over the entire country and the public television system nationwide, including PBS, would likely collapse. This very scenario was discussed extensively at a recent national meeting I attended with other station managers, along with Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS leadership. The group agreed that this would be the likely outcome.
The prestigious Harris Poll results for 2012 showed PBS was No. 1 in public trust — for the ninth year in a row. PBS is not only the most trusted among broadcasters but the most trusted of any American organization, even our court system.The reason is simple. We provide programming that is not the result of focus group market research designed to sell products.
I recall many years ago before I worked in the PBS system, I would tell other parents that PBS was the only television channel I could watch with my young children in the room — day or night — and not have to worry about what was being shown. The only channel.
As a parent, what’s that worth?