Big Bird is not the only casualty when public broadcasting is cut

Some ways of undermining media funding may be more visible than others

Ruffled feathers: Big Bird feels the financial strain. Photograph: Jamal Wilson/AFP/getty images

Ruffled feathers: Big Bird feels the financial strain. Photograph: Jamal Wilson/AFP/getty images

 

Donald Trump’s 2018 budget was one long list of horrors, topped by a $2 trillion accounting error and deep cuts to healthcare safety nets, food-stamp schemes, student loans and medical research. That funding for public broadcasting was also on the kill list was of no surprise.

A certain breed of Republican – by no means all of them – have long expressed their distaste for federal media funding. “I love Big Bird,” the 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney declared, before explaining that this wasn’t going to stop him cutting subsidies for PBS, the original network for Big Bird’s home Sesame Street.

On a visit to Dublin a year later, PBS chief executive Paula Kerger described Romney’s position as “the most serious threat to PBS in memory”. With the election of Trump – parodied by Sesame Street writers as “Ronald Grump” as far back as the 1980s – that threat is now much graver.

It still all has to be fought over in Congress, but the White House has proposed an “orderly close-out” of funding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the nonprofit agency that provides grants to the PBS and NPR networks.

When I interviewed Kerger in 2013, she explained how she spent much of her time explaining that it wasn’t Big Bird, Bert and Ernie who would be hurt by White House hostility, but the smaller PBS member stations that rely on federal money for as much as half of their budgets. PBS has some 350 member stations, while about 1,100 radio stations broadcast syndicated NPR programming.

Today, it remains the case that “zeroing out” public funds – already tiny by European standards – will probably prompt the shutdown of the rural stations that are most heavily dependent on federal funds. That these tend to be located in Trump country is just one more irony of the “turkeys voting for Christmas” variety.

Philanthropic fill-ins

PBS was conceived as a service that could “fill in market failure” amid the already established architecture of US commercial television. It proceeds on this basis, with output that concentrates on arts, culture, history, science and educationally minded children’s shows. Across the organisation, most of its funds are generated by philanthropy.

In 2015 the loss-making, nonprofit Sesame Street Workshop, which makes Sesame Street, struck a deal with HBO

“I look at your system often and think, wow, that would be great,” Kerger told me in 2013 ahead of an RTÉ Audience Council event. Equally, media academics present that night voiced their fears at the idea that public media, rather than being enshrined as a principle of democracy, would instead be reliant on the charity of the rich.

As his budget was unveiled in Washington, Trump was busy the shaking the hand off Binyamin Netanyahu, a man fresh from shutting down the Israel Broadcasting Authority in a move both expected and sudden.

The closure had been in the offing for years, but in an “ugly end”, its flagship news bulletin was given one hour’s notice that it would be obliged to finish days ahead of schedule. The result was tears on air and a heartfelt “thank you and goodbye” message to the rest of Europe during the “Jerusalem calling” part of the Eurovision Song Contest.

Significantly, there is little confidence that the much smaller replacement organisation will avoid the political maulings meted out to its “bloated” predecessor. This is something to remember whenever it seems like politicians here are exploiting RTÉ’s legendary inefficiencies in order to consolidate their own power, rather than trying to save licence fee payers’ money.

Slow starvation

Events in Israel were dramatic. In the US, the intentions are clear. A gradual, slow starvation of public media is much easier to disguise and more difficult to fight. It just goes on and on until the service is so undermined, public support for its existence wanes. This suits nobody more than right-of-centre politicians who believe they can find favour in a commercial media that will suffocate the challenge of rivals on the left.

It also suits the populists who don’t want to trouble anyone for a licence fee if they can possibly help it and secretly believe that, whatever their faults, both Trump and Netanyahu are on to something with this.

Here, Minister for Communications Denis Naughten isn’t afraid to bring up the scourge of “fake news”, apparently in recognition that improved media funding – for the sector as a whole – is the best available bulwark against the spread of financially motivated misinformation (if hardly a foolproof one).

But there is little evidence that his former colleagues in Fine Gael either share this analysis or care about the future of Irish media much beyond their personal interaction with it.

So what of Big Bird? He’s already defected. In 2015 the loss-making, nonprofit Sesame Street Workshop, which makes Sesame Street, struck a deal with HBO, giving the premium cable channel first-run rights to five new seasons. This allowed it to make more programmes, while leaving PBS with dusty episode repeats.

Sometimes market realities bite before politicians do.

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