Government dollars well spent on 'Big Bird'

I thought I'd share with you a "Speaking Out" piece I wrote for the Democrat & Chronicle about the importance of public broadcasting and why government support is money well spent. It ran in this morning's editorial page:

If there’s one thing that “Big Bird” and his friends on Sesame Street know something about, it’s letters and numbers.  So I can only imagine what they were thinking, when the defunding of Big Bird and PBS came up in a recent Presidential Debate.  After all, the entire appropriation for public broadcasting only amounts to 1/100th of 1 percent of the federal budget.  Cutting it would have virtually no impact on the federal deficit.  However, it would have a significant impact on the ability of local stations like WXXI to deliver educational and children’s programs that makes a difference in people’s lives.Again, let’s do the numbers.  WXXI broadcasts more than a dozen hours of non-commercial children’s programming every day.  Our shows are designed to help young people be “ready to learn” when they enter school.  In a City like Rochester, with a high school drop-out crisis, getting to children early is vitally important. 

Are we reaching people?  The independent ratings show that WXXI’s daytime programs outperform the commercial and cable channels aimed at young viewers.  Simply put, over the course of a typical weekday, the PBS Kids lineup on WXXI attracts thousands more viewers than channels such as Disney, Nick or Cartoon Network.  We also hear from many parents how pleased they are that we don’t interrupt our programs with ads urging kids to buy sugar coated cereal or junk food. 

I’ve heard the argument that budget cutting has to start somewhere, even if the cost of public media is only about $1.35 per person per year.  I would argue that it’s not just the cost we should be concerned about, but the value we receive.  In a recent commentary in The Nation magazine, WXXI’s Homework Hotline was cited as one of the educational programs that would be in danger if federal funding was eliminated.  Homework Hotline is available to millions of children throughout New York State and has helped untold numbers of struggling students.  If we believe in a more competitive workforce, we should be investing in programs like this, not threatening their demise.

While education is at the heart of our mission, WXXI provides so much more to our community – a full time classical music station that promotes arts and culture, news from NPR, PBS and our local reporters, national productions that showcase the best of Rochester to the nation, such as our national health series, Second Opinion.  The government funding we receive is leveraged many times over and helps make this a better place for all of us to live and work.  And, as they say on Sesame Street, “this column was brought to you by the letters W-X-X-I.”

Norm Silverstein, President & CEO

WXXI Public Broadcasting Council