My view: PBS is a trusted source and essential to the American public

By Michael Dunn

Published: Sunday, Oct. 21 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Filmmaker Ken Burns.

Cable Risdon

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As a follow up to the comments by Gov. Mitt Romney about Big Bird during the first Presidential debate and in response to a recent blog by Jay Evensen ("Big Bird controversy is silly and nonsensical" Oct. 11), it seems some say that while funding for public television in the U.S. at one time made sense, it is now past its prime and a "luxury" that is neither affordable or needed anymore, given the plethora of entertainment options available to the American viewing public.

I couldn't disagree more and would respectfully argue that not only is public television needed now more than ever, but that it is one of the greatest values we as taxpayers have.

In 1961, then FCC Commissioner Newton Minnow famously opined his fear that this new medium of television was destined to become a "vast wasteland." While that raised the ire of our friends on the commercial side of broadcasting (and saw Minnow himself lampooned with the naming of the "S.S. Minnow" in the television series Gilligan's Island), the comment also launched many new nonprofit educational channels across America that would eventually become PBS.

Three and a half decades later, and after an explosion of commercial and cable television stations, Minnow's criticism and caution remained unchanged. "Television's creators expressed their hope that the new medium would be the greatest instrument of enlightenment ever invented, a blessing to future generations. They were wrong," wrote Minnow in his 1995 book, "Abandoned In The Wasteland." "No other democratic nation has so willingly converted its children into markets for commercial gain and ignored their moral, intellectual and social development."

Yet there is a refuge from Minnow's dire indictment. Because we are the one place on the dial — and in every digital platform, for that matter — that treats our audiences as citizens — not consumers. And just for what we uniquely do for children alone, I believe public television's role today has never been more needed. We are that secure space for exploration and new ideas. A place where anyone regardless of age or station in life can "be more."

And we do this at a tremendous value to the American taxpayer. Especially when compared to other countries. For example, citizens of Great Britain pay $84 per person, per year for their public television. In Japan it is $63 per person. Yet in the U.S., we do all that we do for a grand total of just $1.35 per person. And for every dollar we receive from the federal government (which represents one hundredth of 1 percent of the federal budget), we generate $6 from private donations from foundations, corporations and "viewers like you."

In the late 1980s, a young unknown director named Ken Burns planned an epic 13-hour long history of the Civil War. But like other young filmmakers he found it nearly impossible to raise the millions of dollars needed to tell this story. That was until the National Endowment for the Humanities, chaired by Lynne Cheney, the wife of former Vice President Dick Cheney, awarded Burns the largest grant in the Endowment's history.

Lynne Cheney then arranged for Burns to meet President Ronald Reagan and tell him about the project. As Burns described the project, the president suddenly stopped him short. "You know, Ken, when I was a little boy growing up in Dixon, Ill.," said Reagan, "we used to have a parade on the Fourth of July, and veterans of the Civil War would march in that parade. I'll never forget the connection to history that I felt when those old soldiers marched down the street, and I've worried for most of my life that we're losing our national memory. I want to thank you for preserving it."

We are that connection to the arts, science and public affairs and the vanguard of preserving the national memory. On the heels of Burns' federal funding, General Motors and Bank of America became underwriters of his productions. And even Reagan himself changed his mind about public broadcasting. He came into office promising to defund it, and he wound up increasing PBS funding by a whopping 31 percent.

Whatever happens with the election, one thing is certain: This is not a partisan issue. Like public libraries or public roads, public television is a public service for all. Not only is public broadcasting arguably the most successful public-private partnership in the history of our country, it is also unique in its role as America's most trusted, valued and essential media source. And thanks to ongoing federal support, a vast treasure-trove for all Americans now, and in the future.

Michael Dunn is the Emmy-Award winning general manager of KUED Television in Salt Lake City, a PBS station.

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