PBS Stations Express Cautious Optimism About Federal Funding

Fred Rogers - Mister Rogers' Neighborhood
Gene J. Puskar/AP/REX/Shutterstock

WASHINGTON — Public TV station managers from around the country are gathering in Washington this week with a sense of been there, done that.

The White House once again has proposed zeroing out federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the entity that distributes grants to local stations, NPR, and PBS.

But there is a greater sense this year of predictability over what may happen next. The Trump administration made the same proposal in 2017, but Congress, which sets the budget, went ahead and continued to fund public broadcasting at its same level, about $445 million, and even increased the budget for its Ready to Learn program.

“Public broadcasting has defended itself, its missions, its viewers, and listeners against extraordinary odds, and we have won,” Patrick Butler, president and CEO of America’s Public Television Stations, told a gathering at the Fairmont Hotel in Washington on Monday.

The group is holding its annual summit, which includes lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill, on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Butler credited a mobilization effort in which dozens of station managers programmed on-air appeals, and a social media campaign called Protect My Public Media nearly doubled its e-mail list to 720,000. After the most recent White House budget called for phasing out funding, an additional 40,000 signed on to the campaign, Butler said.

Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) spoke to the station representatives and tried to give assurances about the funding outlook for the coming year.

“As I always say, don’t pay too much to those presidential budget proposals because they really don’t mean much at the end of the day. They really don’t,” he said. “It’s unfortunate, because people get awfully exercised, as you should. You see that you have been zeroed out and that’s your job. You got to stand up and make some contacts and it keeps you on your game. It keeps you moving. I wish it didn’t have to work in that manner.”

But he said a two-year budget agreement for 2018 and 2019 should be reason for optimism that there will not be drastic cuts in government programs. Dent, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, received the group’s champion of public broadcasting award, and said he does worry that the “political center of Congress is collapsing. It is not collapsing around the country, but at times I believe it is collapsing in Congress. It just seems that the leaders of both parties are pulled very much toward the bases.” Dent is retiring after his current term.

Butler said the worry last year in part was because they were not sure how the GOP-controlled Congress would respond to the White House budget proposal.

“No one knew how faithfully they would follow their president’s lead in matters large and small,” he said, adding, “it was the most serious threat to our funding in a decade, and your anxiety was justified. We were about to find out who are real friends are, how resilient our system is in the face of serious challenge.”

But he said, “we passed every test and our funding has been secured” in 2017. The appropriations committee will take up the issue of funding for 2018 in the coming months.

At the event, stations also marked the 50th anniversary of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” a mainstay of public television that ran nationally from 1968 to 2001. The occasion is being marked with a U.S. postage stamp, a March 6 PBS special, toy figurines, and a shoe drive. Morgan Neville’s documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is slated for release this summer, and Tom Hanks is attached to play him in the film “You Are My Friend.”