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How Important is Government Funding for PBS Children's Programming?

And What That Means for America's Kids

By

Sesame Street

Abby Cadabby enjoys reading one of her favorite nursery rhymes.

Photo credit: Richard Termine. © Sesame Workshop. All Rights Reserved.
Since the question of government funding for PBS came up in the 2012 presidential election, I thought it would be interesting to talk to a source from PBS about just what government funding means for PBS children's programming, and in turn, what it means for America's kids.

I'm all for cleaning up the federal budget, so it's important to evaluate where the money is going and how it's used. Here's some information about PBS children's programming we need to take into consideration: research on shows like Sesame Street and Super Why has shown that these shows help kids -- particularly kids from low income families. It's sad, and it's not the way it should be, but the simple truth is: for some kids, Sesame Street and Super Why may be the only preschool they get, and research has shown that the shows are effective.

I believe the research. Why? Because while my own children had the benefits of extensive preschool learning both at home and outside the home, I still saw them learning from educational television programming. I have seen other kids learn from educational TV as well.

Because of my appreciation for the very high quality and considerably less commercial PBS shows for kids, and because of the fact that PBS provides some of the only and best educational programming for older kids who have graduated out of the preschooler shows, I wanted to know more about the issues surrounding government funding. If and when this issue comes up for debate, parents need to be armed with the facts, as presented by both sides, so they can get involved with decisions that will effect education and America's kids. Lesli Rotenberg, Senior VP of Children’s Media at PBS graciously answered some of my questions via email:

Q: How much does PBS rely on government funding for children’s programming?

A: Simply put, federal funding is the foundation on which the public broadcasting system is built.

It’s important to note that the federal appropriation is not for PBS, but for the public broadcasting system as a whole.

The majority of funds are distributed directly to approximately 1,300 locally owned public television and radio stations currently serving viewers and listeners. These locally governed, community-based stations depend on this critical seed money, which they leverage to raise the addition funds needed to provide content and services that are available to everyone, regardless of geography or ability to pay for a cable or satellite subscription.

The universal access of our programming through free, over-the-air broadcasting is particularly important in the area of children’s media as it allow us to reach nearly all American children, even those who can’t attend preschool.

Q: Without government funding, would PBS children’s shows such as Sesame Street, Super Why, Wild Kratts and others still be produced at the same rate and level of quality? Would they realistically be able to be funded through other means not involving government funding OR the takeover of these shows by commercial networks?

A: The loss of federal funding would have a devastating effect on the PBS system as a whole, including our programming, but especially on the stations that make these programs available to all American families, regardless of where they live or the ability to pay for a cable or satellite subscription.

Q: How many children rely on PBS children’s programming?

A: Over the course of a year, nearly 90% of all U.S. television households tune in to their local PBS station. In fact, our service is watched by 82% of all children between the ages of 2-8. In a month, more than 13 million unique visitors come to PBSKIDS.org. In September, PBS KIDS had the 6 top-rated series for kids 2-5. PBS KIDS programs are more valuable than ever to American families.

Additionally PBS KIDS attracts a higher proportion of viewers from Hispanic, African American and low-income households compared to their representation in the U.S. population. And online, PBSKIDS.org attracts a higher proportion of web users of Asian, Hispanic and African American descent compared to the average U.S. web audience. (http://valuepbs.org/kids-and-parents.php)

Q4: I understand that no organization – business, charitable or otherwise – would relish the thought of losing money or funding. But, given the terms Governor Romney used – “Is it something we’re willing to borrow money from China for?” – Do you feel that government should be in the business of funding television?

A: The federal investment in public broadcasting equals about one one-hundredth of one percent of the federal budget. Elimination of funding would have virtually no impact on the nation’s debt. Yet the loss to the American public would be devastating.

Numerous studies -- including one requested by Congress earlier this year -- have stated categorically that while the federal investment in public broadcasting is relatively modest, the absence of this critical seed money would cripple the system and bring its services to an end.

Q: How do the salaries of PBS executives compare to executives of commercial networks like Nickelodeon or Disney? And how about the salaries of those who produce and work on children’s programming for PBS shows?

A: We don’t track data on executive salaries of commercial networks. Compensation for the PBS executives is based on median market data of comparable non-profit organizations – both DC area and national. In the media industry, with which PBS must compete for talent, compensation tends to be significantly higher and often includes equity as well as cash compensation. PBS retains the services of an independent consulting firm that uses data from over 300 not-for-profit organizations to compare compensation.

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