Thinking Inside the Box


by Ellis Bromberg, General Manager of MPTV

What should be the criteria for public funding of a national program? This summer, Congress reviewed one such service, and heard impressive testimony about it:

The program works well and has earned the public trust; it provides services that the commercial sector cannot or chooses not to; its existence would be put in jeopardy by a cutback of funding; and this funding is not extravagant—and is matched six-fold by individual contributors, private foundations, and local businesses.

That, in a nutshell, is the story of public broadcasting in this country.

In June, when a committee in the U.S. House of Representatives proposed drastic cuts to public broadcasting funding, congressional offices were flooded with calls of protest from citizens across the country. An amendment restoring funding, sponsored by Rep. David Obey (D-WI), was offered on the House floor, and it passed by a wide margin, supported by both Republicans and Democrats. (We now await action in the U.S. Senate this fall.)

Once constituents spoke, the House vote made perfect sense. According to a recent Roper Poll, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) is America's most trusted national institution—more trusted than our courts of law, the commercial and cable networks, and newspapers. Respondents rated PBS five times more trustworthy than Congress itself!

Public television has distinguished itself by using its airwaves not to sell products, but to serve citizens with programming that is educational, informative, independent, and balanced. Commercial television stations—even with their best efforts—make decisions about scheduling and producing programs with one goal in mind: to make money. There's nothing wrong with that: there are hundreds of channels on my cable system that do it 24 hours a day.

But there should be room for at least one voice on the dial that makes decisions based on how the programming will meet viewers' needs, particularly the under-served, rather than how large the ratings are. As a noncommercial entity, Milwaukee Public Television—Channels 10 and 36—has done that in southeastern Wisconsin for almost 50 years.

Every weekday, MPTV offers 11 hours of children's programming, from "Arthur" to "Zoom," all developed by educators and supported by our local Ready To Learn workshops for teachers, librarians, and daycare providers. Our schedule also includes televised courses for which adult viewers can earn college credit. It's no surprise that even with the surfeit of cable channels that have begun operation over the last few decades, PBS remains the number one television and video resource for classroom programming in the country.

MPTV is the only TV station in Wisconsin that produces a weekly Spanish-language public affairs program,"¡Adelante!" for our growing Latino population. MPTV is the only place you can find science programming like "Nova," history on "American Experience" and "I Remember," fine drama on "Mystery!" and "Masterpiece Theatre," lifelong learning on "Antiques Roadshow" and "Rick Steves' Europe," provocative investigations on "Frontline," music and dance on "Great Performances," "Austin City Limits," and "Soundstage," and truly fair and balanced news analysis on "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer."

No national cable channel produces programming that focuses on people, issues, and events in southeastern Wisconsin. We do, and viewers appreciate such MPTV productions as "Outdoor Wisconsin," "Great Lakes Gardener," "Tracks Ahead," "InterCHANGE," "Black Nouveau," and "4th Street Forums."

And because you don't need cable to receive an over-the-air signal of public television in most parts of the country, it is a great equalizer. You don't need to pay for cable or satellite to watch a symphony orchestra, insightful political analysis, or even a classic film. They're all on MPTV!

In MPTV's FY 2006 budget, the federal contribution accounts for 10 percent of revenue. Some say we should continue to provide these services, but do so without federal money. The problem is that federal dollars represent as much as a third of the income for some other public stations, particularly those in rural communities that lack significant populations or business support. If federal funds were eliminated, those stations would wither or die, and the obligation to fund the national programming system would fall on MPTV and other survivors.

Local services would have to be cut dramatically to aggregate a minimal national service. The result would be a substantially weakened local and national schedule and the elimination of services our viewers want and need. We would all be the poorer for such a penny-wise and pound-foolish decision.

If federal funding is maintained, each American taxpayer will pay only about $1 next year for public
broadcasting—that covers every public television and radio station across the country. It's a great bargain!

Since the 1960s, government has appropriately and wisely seen the partial funding of public stations as one of its obligations—along with public schools, libraries, and parks. In return, public broadcasting has delivered on its promise to provide citizens with an important alternative to commercial television and radio. It is a public service media institution with national reach and impact. It has earned the trust of the American people—and its performance merits continued government support.