What do the numbers $369,000, $632,233, and $1.2 million have in common? According to Senator Jim DeMint, those are the salaries received by top-ranking executives of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PBS, and NPR in 2009. When publicly-financed media operations can afford to pay those kinds of salaries, DeMint argues, it’s time for them to pay their own way:
While executives at the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR) are raking in massive salaries, the organizations are participating in an aggressive lobbying effort to prevent Congress from saving hundreds of millions of dollars each year by cutting their subsidies. The so-called commercial free public airwaves have been filled with pleas for taxpayer cash. The Association of Public Television Stations has hired lobbyists to fight the cuts. Hundreds of taxpayer-supported TV, radio and Web outlets have partnered with an advocacy campaign to facilitate emails and phone calls to Capitol Hill for the purpose of telling members of Congress, “Public broadcasting funding is too important to eliminate!”
Is it? Only if one takes economic advice from Elmo. Otherwise, the explosion of media choices for Americans across the country — media choices produced by a free market — and their targeted demography shows that public television has become an anachronism. As such, one might expect those publicly-financed operations to contract, especially in an age of massive budget deficits. On the contrary, DeMint says:
Despite how accessible media has become to Americans over the years, funding for CPB has grown considerably. In 2001, the federal government appropriated $340 million for CPB. Last year it got $420 million. As Congress considers ways to close the $1.6 trillion deficit, cutting funding for the CPB has even been proposed by President Obama’s bipartisan deficit reduction commission. Instead, Mr. Obama wants to increase CPB’s funding to $451 million in his latest budget.
Meanwhile, highly successful, brand-name public programs like Sesame Street make millions on their own. “Sesame Street,” for example, made more than $211 million from toy and consumer product sales from 2003-2006. Sesame Workshop President and CEO Gary Knell received $956,513 in compensation in 2008. With earnings like that, Big Bird doesn’t need the taxpayers to help him compete against the Nickleodeon cable channel’s Dora the Explorer.
In other words, Elmo will do just fine if forced to go private, as will Dora, Big Bird, and the Cookie Monster. The entire question is absurd given the fiscal realities of a national debt approaching 100% of our GDP and massive annual deficits that will blow right past the Greek marker within a year or two, David Harsanyi writes at Reason. It’s time to start cutting and stop wringing our hands about it:
When, as Democrats contend, cutting a single-digit percentage of the budget becomes an abdication of our duty, how can we ever get to $61 billion in spending cuts, much less a balanced budget? If half the government believes that creating debt is an economic stimulant, what are the chances of our ever dealing with national debt?
Any spending cut that does not involve defense (which should be on the table) induces Democrats to lament the inconceivable and imagined personal and economic toll Americans will suffer. The truth is that those who view nearly all government spending as not only a moral obligation but also economically advantageous don’t really want to cut a penny.
Spending on PBS, NPR, and CPB are a drop in the bucket, to be sure. Cutting off all three entirely would retire around 0.0625% of the current annual deficit. But given the successful nature of these shows and their executives, especially when they have proven they can raise funds and compete in the private market (especially on merchandising), the reluctance to call off these subsidies for an anachronism like public broadcasting makes Big Bird the canary in the coal mine for seriousness on fiscal discipline. If Congress can’t bring itself to cut spending here … then where will it take action? If our political class lacks the character and fortitude to cut spending on fictional characters, then heaven help us when we get to the entitlement programs for real people.
Update: I’m told by people who know that Dora the Explorer is a character for Nickolodeon, owned by Viacom and definitely not a subsidized character. You think a grandpa would know that …