PBS Chief Warns of ‘Existential Crisis’ for Stations if Federal Funding Is Eliminated

Paula Kerger
David Buchan/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

WASHINGTON — PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger warns that a number of public television stations will have to shut down and that the network will have to make some “hard decisions” about programming should Congress follow through on the Trump administration’s budget and zero out federal funding for public broadcasting.

“PBS will exist in some form, but a number of stations will go off the air,” she told Variety on Wednesday. “That is not an idle threat. That will happen.”

She said that the loss of the money — which has run about $445 million per year — would create an “existential crisis. What you would look at is stations in parts of the country going dark.”

So far, though, the White House proposal to eliminate money for public broadcasting has been met with opposition from both parties on Capitol Hill. The Trump administration made the same recommendation in its budget last year, but public broadcasting funding survived in the series of funding bills that Congress passed to keep the government open.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who chairs an appropriations subcommittee that oversees funding for public media, told Variety that he opposes the elimination of funding, and he predicted that it would be preserved. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) and Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.), who chairs the Congressional Public Broadcasting Caucus, called the proposal to eliminate funding “deeply misguided.”

PBS and NPR stations are doing what they did last year in rallying public support for continued funding, having launched a campaign through the group America’s Public Television Stations to “Protect My Public Media.”

The federal money funds the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which then gives out grants largely to local stations.

The Trump administration makes the case in its budget that “CPB funding comprises about 15% of the total amount spent on public broadcasting, with the remainder coming from non-federal sources, with many large stations raising an even greater share. This private fundraising has proven durable, negating the need for continued federal subsidies.”

Groups like the Heritage Foundation have long argued that private sources could make up the difference, and Mitt Romney proposed eliminating funding when he ran for president in 2012. Big Bird became a topic in his first debate with President Barack Obama.

But Kerger said that the 15% figure is an average. Some stations, particularly in rural areas and states like Alaska, get 50% to 60% of their budget from federal funding and would struggle to survive.

She also made that case that PBS and public educational programming isn’t being offered by commercial outlets, and that the content reaches over-the-air homes that do not have access to high-speed broadband service or cannot afford it. PBS launched the 24-hour PBS Kids service last year, with some of the content geared to early childhood education.

“Many homes don’t have books, many don’t have access to broadband, but almost all homes have access to television,” she said, adding that “one of the things public television is doing in this country is bridging that gap.”

Another difference this year is that the White House did not single out public broadcasting in making their case for budget cuts, as they did last year. Back then, budget director Mick Mulvaney several times questioned the need for such funding, and cited the merchandising of Sesame Street characters as an example of how public programming could survive on its own.

This year, Kerger said, “We will just gear up for another year of making sure that we are trying to articulate a strong case for what we do.” She said that while the environment is a bit different this year, “You never know what is going to happen until it is all done.”