In the first presidential debate of 2012, Gov. Mitt Romney, explaining how he would shrink the federal-budget deficit by eliminating non-essential funding lines, took aim at public broadcasting. “I like PBS,” the Republican nominee said. “I love Big Bird.” But, he added, “I’m not going to borrow money from China to pay for it.” Romney’s comments surprised many, even though his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, had long established himself as an opponent of federal funding for public broadcasting.
Romney and Ryan lost. But four years later, Republicans, led by President-elect Donald Trump and his running mate Mike Pence, are poised to inherit the Oval Office while holding majorities in both houses of Congress. And although Romney has faded from relevance, Ryan, as Speaker of the House, could shape much of the legislation that makes its way to President Trump’s desk. How the public broadcasters whom Ryan has tried multiple times to defund fare in Washington, D.C.’s impending new reality is a question around which there is considerable uncertainty from those broadcasters — but also some very measured hopefulness.
Most of the uncertainty stems from Trump. Unlike Romney, whose debate performance prompted online memes about Big Bird being fired, Trump has stayed silent on public broadcasting.
“I frankly don’t know where President-elect Trump comes down on federal funding of public television,” said Patrick Butler, CEO of America’s Public Television Stations. “I’m not sure how much thought he’s given to this issue.”
For 2016, CPB received $445 million from the federal government — the same funding level as in 2012, but up 23% from 2003. Save roughly 5% that the organization holds onto for operating costs, the CPB then distributes that money to local public television and radio stations nationwide.
Some of that money makes its way up the food chain to PBS and NPR in the form of programming fees. But the bulk goes to operational costs at local stations.
“These funds represent vital operational funds for both public television and public radio stations,” said Kathleen Pavelko, CEO of WITF in Harrisburg, Pa. “Unlike funds that we raise from donors or foundations or businesses, it doesn’t have a high cost of fundraising attached.”
WITF, which operates a television and two radio stations, has an annual budget of just under $11 million. CPB money represents around 10% of that. For larger public-media organizations, that percentage is much lower. But for smaller stations, CPB funds can account for as much as 25% of revenue.
Though the CPB’s appropriation is relatively minuscule — 0.01% of the overall federal budget — it has long been a political football. Funding was shaved during the Reagan administration, and eventually restored. When Republicans under Speaker Newt Gingrich took control of the House of Representatives in 1994, they proposed defunding the CPB as part of their “Contract With America” manifesto — though they never successfully managed to do so. (Gingrich is now reportedly being considered for a cabinet position in the Trump administration.)
Ryan has several times taken aim at the CPB. In 2005, he opposed a measure to increase its appropriation by $100 million, and in 2007 backed an amendment to defund it entirely. In 2011 he voted in favor of a bill to eliminate support for NPR. And in 2014, as chairman of the House budget committee, he proposed a spending plan that would eliminate federal funding for the CPB and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
But public broadcasters believe they have a staunch defender in the uppermost tier of the Trump hierarchy.
“Our first ally in the new administration we expect to be Vice President Pence,” Butler said.
As governor of Indiana, Pence restored state funding for public broadcasting that had been previously eliminated. In 2014, APTS gave Pence its Champion of Public Broadcasting Award. Pence wrote his acceptance speech himself and showed it to Butler after delivering it. “I could have written this speech,” Butler said.
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell is also considered a public-media supporter — a fan of Kentucky Educational Television, his home state’s government-run TV network. And Republican majorities in the House and Senate have continued to approve funding for public broadcasting since they took joint control of Congress in 2014.
“We have good friends and allies and champions on both the Senate and House appropriations committees,” Butler said.
But as with so many issues, Trump remains an enigma. Unlike his border wall, his ban on Muslim immigrants, and even the electoral college, Trump has offered no inflammatory comments, contradictory comments, or comments of any kind on funding for public broadcasting.
“There are a lot of uncertainties with this administration,” Pavelko said. “I do suspect they have larger issues to deal with before they get to this.”