Update About Funding Public Broadcasting
- How worried are you about your federal funding?
- Do PBS member stations really need the federal appropriation?
- What are you doing to defend public broadcasting from a de-funding threat?
- What will happen if federal funding is lost?
- Is this attack as serious as the one in 1995?
- How Do You Feel About NPR’s Decision To Fire Juan Williams?
- What’s Your Response To The Various Proposals To Eliminate Funding For Public Broadcasting?
- Do You Have Government Relations/Lobbying Consultants?
- Are You Worried That The Return Of A Republican House Will Mean You Will Face More Charges Of Liberalism?
- What About Declining Ratings At PBS?
- What Is AETN Focused On Now?
AETN Executive Director Allen Weatherly, who just completed 10 years as the network CEO and with 30 years experience in educational television, recently sat down and reflected on some relevant questions related to AETN, PBS and the current threat to any federal funding for public broadcasting.
Weatherly, also the CEO of the AETN Foundation (without pay), has twice been elected by public television stations to the PBS Board of Directors. These duties have allowed him to witness close-up the work of stations all across the country and the challenges non-commercial public media is facing in a difficult environment.
Q1. How worried are you about your federal funding?
It would be a bit disingenuous of me to not recognize what is going on in Congress and how it may affect AETN.
It is clear that America must find ways to tighten our country’s fiscal belt and right-size government spending, but legislation to eliminate funding for public broadcasting overlooks the critical value that AETN has brought to Arkansas for 45 years and the services PBS’ nearly 360 member stations across the nation provide to major cities and small towns. And that does not even mention 800 or so public radio stations.
With that said I am concerned, but hopeful.
I am concerned because federal funding provides vital seed money for PBS member stations like AETN, which are locally owned and operated, supporting their programming and initiatives, which serve every community across the nation.
Understand that most funding from federal sources goes directly to the local stations, not to PBS, or in radio’s case, NPR. It is the local stations who will be directly and immediately impacted by elimination.
I am hopeful, though, because we have long had the support of Arkansans, the American public and the Members of Congress who represent them because we are recognized for providing critical services for the entire nation.
Public television is America’s largest classroom, the nation’s largest stage for the arts and a trusted window to the world – all at the federal funding cost of about 59 cents per Arkansan per year.
AETN is a state entity and as such has always received operational support from the state which amounts to about $1.76 per Arkansan per year. So everything we get from government sources per Arkansan amounts to about 60% of the cost of one Big Mac.
Citizens help support AETN as well with the understanding, I believe, that we exist to try to provide services and programming not designed to make a buck – which is fine for commercial television – but to serve a mission.
AETN’s mission has always been clear:
The mission of the Arkansas Educational Television Network (AETN) is to offer lifelong learning opportunities to all Arkansans; to supply instructional programs to Arkansas's schools; to provide programming and services to improve and enhance the lives of Arkansas's citizens; and to illuminate the culture and heritage of Arkansas and the world.
To accomplish this mission, AETN, through the creative use of telecommunications, will present a high-quality public television service designed to inform, educate, motivate, entertain, enlighten and inspire.
The unique combination of local, corporate, state and federal support is the key in allowing public media to not be forced to chase audiences or a coveted section of a desired demographic and to try to provide quality children’s, educational and arts and cultural programming that aims to meet our mission – not a bottom line.Back to Top
Q2. Do PBS member stations really need the federal appropriation?
Federal funding provides vital seed money for PBS’ nearly 360 member stations, which are locally owned and operated, supporting public service programming and initiatives, particularly among underserved groups like rural populations who wouldn’t otherwise be able to access what public television stations provide.
This access includes content that expands the minds of children, documentaries that open up new worlds, non-commercialized news series that keep citizens informed on world events and programming that brings the arts, theatre and music to people wherever they live.
These dollars are particularly important to smaller stations. While the appropriation equals about 15% of our system's revenue (about the same % for AETN), that's an aggregate number. For many stations in rural America, the appropriation counts for as much as 40-50% of their budgets.
Something to keep in mind is how the appropriation is leveraged: for every dollar in federal funding invested in member stations, public television raises an additional $6.00 on our own, including contributions from many, many people who voluntarily support our community-based work. So when we call the federal appropriation seed money, we mean it.
The small, but vital percentage of our overall budget that comes from a federal appropriation is what forms the foundation upon which we build our capacity to serve all Americans with content and services that educate, inform and inspire.Back to Top
Q3. What are you doing to defend public broadcasting from a de-funding threat?
AETN, as a state entity, is careful not to spend any public funds for the specific purpose of lobbying. The private 501-C3 AETN Foundation, does support national public broadcasting organizations delivering our case to lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
There is a group of local stations who have launched a grass roots effort, called 170 Million Americans for Public Broadcasting, to give supporters of public television and radio a way to let Members of Congress know that public broadcasting is too important to cut. The AETN Foundation supports the aims of this group and is a member of the coalition.
I am continually impressed by the true transparency members of the public television family demonstrate when dealing with issues like this. Of course, we do not have the kind of lobbying dollars or power that others may have but we do have the support of millions of Americans. The 170-million figure refers to the amount of people who use public broadcasting annually.Back to Top
Q4. What will happen if federal funding is lost?
The lofty answer: If the government cuts PBS member station funding, citizens could lose access to content that expands the minds of children, documentaries that open up new worlds, non-commercialized news series that keep citizens informed on world events and programming that brings the arts, music and theatre to every community across the country. For the price of about one dollar per American per year, is it worth the loss?
Specifically, I believe it is America’s and Arkansas’s children who will feel the greatest loss. PBS is America’s largest classroom, available to nearly all of America’s children – including those who can’t attend preschool.
PBS offers educational media that helps prepare children for success in school and opens up the world to them in an age-appropriate way.
PBS is the #1 source of media content for pre-school teachers and the #1 place parents turn to for preschool video online, with content proven to improve critical literacy skills in young children. Without it, teachers and families would lose access to innovative lessons, and fun, educational videos that engage young minds.
There is a large and growing body of research that proves PBS content helps children learn.
A study conducted by the Education Development Center showed that preschool children who participated in a curriculum incorporating PBS KIDS video and games into classroom instruction were better prepared for kindergarten than children who didn’t.
According to a study entitled “G Is for Growing”, children who watched SESAME STREET in preschool spend more time reading for fun in high school, and they obtain higher grades in English, math and science. PBS children’s programming teaches important educational and life skills, cultivating and challenging the critical thinkers and innovators of tomorrow.
In Arkansas, AETN is all about education with services designed especially for schools and teachers over the past 45 years. Our ARKANSAS IDEAS (Internet Delivered Education for Arkansas Schools) website with the Arkansas Department of Education is a one-of-a-kind professional development center available free to Arkansas teachers and is the literal envy of public media stations and states. This, along with additional programs and services folks expect from AETN, brings what I can defend as an extraordinary value to our state.
Q5. Is this attack as serious as the one in 1995?
It’s difficult to compare the situations as so much about the political, media and economic landscapes are very different today. But given the economic challenges our country faces, we know that every dollar spent by the government is under serious review.
I believe it is appropriate for Congress to review the programs it funds, and that a thorough analysis will show that the funding of public television benefits a broad segment of the public, which would not be well served if the funding was eliminated.
We do know that one of the arguments made in 1995 is less true today. Sixteen years ago, with the advent of many new cable channels, those calling for cuts in the funding of public broadcasting stated that there was no longer a need for it; that the marketplace was producing high-quality programming on its own. There is no question that there is some high-quality programming available on cable now, but cable networks follow the dictates of the commercial marketplace.
Public broadcasting presents programming that viewers value but fall outside of a commercial network’s economic calculations, such as the in-depth documentaries of Ken Burns, curriculum-based children’s content that improves academic skills, arts and culture series and much more.
Another fallacy related to the suggestion that other channels are sufficient, I personally enjoy arts and culture programming as a staple of my viewing. It is clear that channels like Bravo and A&E, sometimes cited as examples of such alternatives, have moved rapidly away from their original work with the arts. Why? Well, they need to make a buck for their investors. That is perfectly legitimate and proper, of course, but it does not always bode well for arts and cultural programming.
Even after 30 years in this business, I strongly believe the best source of non-commercialized, free programming on television that educates, inspires and informs continues to be AETN, in association with PBS and its member stations.
One other fact: remember that PBS is not a producing organization. They have never produced a program. The member stations provide the programming. PBS invests on our behalf and puts together a program schedule we can choose to use. Several AETN productions have been seen nationwide providing a positive view of our state.
In fact, I think it is more essential now than ever. Digital platforms mean that Americans have more access to media than ever before, which means it even more important for there to be a non-commercialized source for content that educates, informs and inspires.
In our state, I strongly believe we need “Arkansas Week”, “Exploring Arkansas with Chuck Dovish”, “Outdoor Hotline”, “Men and Women of Distinction”, and our music series “AETN Presents: On the Front Row” to celebrate and help explain Arkansas. Award-winning locally produced AETN productions like “Silent Storytellers” and others document our state for future generations.
I know for certain that our governing Commission, staff and volunteers work hard to stretch what dollars we have as far as possible to bring quality mission-oriented programming to Arkansas.Back to Top
Q6. How do you feel about NPR’s decision to fire Juan Williams?
First, it must be noted that PBS and NPR are different organizations and as such PBS had no role in the matter. NPR has made several public statements about this issue and I have no insight or anything to add to what has already been said other than to make it clear that we support our colleagues at our local public radio stations in Arkansas. I think they do terrific work.
Q7. What’s your response to the various proposals to eliminate funding for public broadcasting?
In this difficult economic environment, I think it is critical that every dollar spent by the government undergo serious review and I hope there is not just a rush to cut without considering the value provided.
Public broadcasting, certainly AETN, has a mission to provide free content that expands the minds of children, documentaries that open up new worlds, non-commercialized series that keep our citizens informed on world events and programming that brings the arts, theatre and music to communities across the country. Without public broadcasting, the programming options available to such disparate groups as parents, children and rural Americans would be, I believe, significantly limited.
I have been told, even by Members of Congress, that they increasingly believe that AETN and public television is an oasis (their words) in a sea of reality shows and other programs that are sometimes not suitable, in their opinion. In fact, I hear this more than I ever have in my three decades working in this business. This does not exactly square with the argument that there is adequate programming available elsewhere that would make up for the loss of public television.
I don’t in any way discount the legitimacy of asking whether the support we receive is appropriate. But I do believe it is appropriate because we provide this state with high-quality, free services including educational content for children. And we have done so for more than 45 years.
Cutting CPB funding would save Americans less than half a cent a day, but would cost our community vital services that many of our citizens now depend upon.Back to Top
Q8. Do you have government relations/lobbying consultants?
Public broadcasting is represented by advocates at the national level who work with local stations to initiate advocacy, planning, research and communications activities at the national and community levels. AETN does not employ any outside lobbying consultants.Back to Top
Q9. Are you worried that the return of a Republican house will mean you will face more charges of liberalism?
I know our schedule and what AETN produces for Arkansans. As I understand the main critiques we have heard, the calls to cut or reduce the funding PBS and local stations receive from CPB are based on the very legitimate concern about the size of the U.S. budget deficit, not perceptions about public television’s content.
I am not quite sure what programs are being discussed when I visit with folks who make the general claim that PBS or AETN are specifically biased. Jim Lehrer and the “PBS Newshour”? I think they define the term “fair and balanced.” “Frontline”? Seems to me they have a history of taking on everybody. “Great Performances”? “NOVA”? “American Experience”? Is it “Arkansas Week”?
I just hope folks who make such general statements actually watch AETN. If they still think we are this or that after watching our programming, fine. Democracy means diversity of thought.
But I know this: the American public has named PBS the most trusted institution among nationally known organizations for seven consecutive years and ranks PBS second behind military defense as an exceptional value for tax dollars, according to national polls conducted by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Media.
A recent comprehensive statewide survey conducted by Oakleaf and Associates found that no matter their political affiliation, Arkansans have an extraordinarily high perception of and support for AETN. They also believe AETN works hard to be fair.
I think it’s fine that people have diverse tastes and define that this or that program is a favorite - or not so favorite. With the average household spending at least half of their day with some form of electronic media I would hope all use their discretion and make good choices about what they want to watch. I know I do, and I watch many cable and commercial broadcast programs as most do, in addition to AETN.
Our challenge is to show the value we provide, and frankly what would be missing were public broadcasting not exist. When it comes to programming for children, for example, we know we have very wide support from people who consider themselves conservatives. So our task is to show our value, and what would be missing were there no broadcasters dedicated to using the public airwaves to serve the public good.Back to Top
Q10. What about declining ratings at PBS?
PBS’ national ratings are actually increasing. PBS’ full season for 2009-2010 wrapped with 18% increase from the 2008-2009 season. PBS’ full day viewership is the 12th most-watched channel among all broadcast and cable networks for the 2009-2010 season, just below Fox News Channel.
PBS and stations are also building a growing audience on digital platforms, from PBS’ highly trafficked website – welcoming 20 million visitors each month – that includes local station content to PBS’ iPhone and iPad apps and more. Our video player is fabulous and you can watch full-length programs at your leisure at home or on the road.Back to Top
Q11. What is AETN focused on now?
We continue to do our work every day to serve children and families, showcase the best of Arkansas and present the quality programming available through PBS. Budgets are extremely tight these days – even without this federal threat – and we are not looking to become a commercial entity searching for ratings.
Again, I love many broadcast and cable television programs and am not some sort of purist. I just strongly believe in what we do. And what we will continue to try to do.Back to Top
- February 14, 2011