While stumping for votes recently, presidential candidate Mitt Romney called for an end to federal funding for PBS, suggesting that commercials air during “Sesame Street” and support the content instead. “I like PBS,” he said. “We’re not going to kill Big Bird, but Big Bird’s going to have advertisements, all right?”
PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger addressed Romney’s remarks when she met with journalists at the Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, Calif. on Wednesday — after touting the network’s recent successes and increased viewership thanks to programs like “Downton Abbey.” “I’m glad that [Romney] said that he likes public broadcasting,” she began. “What we hope to do is to make it clear that we have broad support from the American public.”
Kerger, who acknowledged difficult decisions will have to be made during tough economic times, said PBS “has always had bipartisan support,” thanks in large part to an “effective public/private partnership.” In aggregate, the government funds only 15 percent of the PBS budget — “that’s $1.35 per person per year,” she said. But that percentage is vital to making public broadcasting available to smaller, more rural stations. “Public broadcasting provides an important source of information for many communities,” Kerger said. “That money can not be made up.”
As for Romney’s suggestion of introducing advertisements into PBS programming, Kerger made one critical point: “We have restrictions through the FCC. We can’t just take ads.” But even if running ads didn’t violate regulations, turning PBS into a commercial broadcaster would fundamentally change programming, as the network would be forced to woo ad dollars. Some in government have suggested the network take cues from successful, educational commercial networks like History.
“Congress has said maybe you can learn from this, but ‘Pawn Stars’ and ‘American Pickers’ is not the same as ‘American Experience’ and Ken Burns,” Kerger said.