As Budget Debates Begin, Republicans Put NPR, PBS on Chopping Block

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ABC News

As Budget Debates Begin, Republicans Put NPR, PBS on Chopping Block

House GOP Budget Takes Away All Federal Funding for Corporation for Public Broadcasting

by
Huma Khan

Funding for Big Bird, center, and his friends from Sesame Street would be affected if House Republicans killl the federal subsidy for public television. (Todd Plitt/USA Today)

As the House prepares for debate today on the budget, Republicans are trying to cut off public funding for NPR and the Public Broadcasting Service, which run such iconic programs as "Sesame Street" and "Morning Edition."

The House Republicans' budget would rescind any funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting -- which partially supports these two organizations -- for the remainder of the year, and zero out millions in funds after that.

This is not the first attempt by Congress to cut funding for what many Republicans see as liberal-leaning broadcast operations.

House Republicans made a proposal in November to strip federal funding for NPR after the radio station fired controversial commentator Juan Williams for comments he made about Muslims.

That bill didn't pass, but this time, Republicans are in the majority in the House, and many say the cuts are needed to balance the burgeoning U.S. deficit.

"I think they are dead serious. There's a real concern about budget among lots of people and they're looking for ways to cut," said Christopher Sterling, a professor of media and public affairs and public policy at George Washington University.

If funding indeed gets put on the chopping block, it could have a detrimental impact on PBS and NPR affiliates, many of which are already struggling financially.

"It would diminish stations' ability to bring high-quality local, national and international news to their communities, as well as local arts, music and cultural programming that other media don't present," NPR chief executive and president Vivian Schiller said in a statement. "Rural and economically distressed communities could lose access to this programming altogether if their stations go dark."

PBS president and chief executive Paula Kerger, pointing to the network's educational programming, said, "It's America's children who will feel the greatest loss, especially those who can't attend preschool."

Conservative lawmakers have attempted, for decades, to cut federal funding for public broadcasting, arguing that they have a liberal bias.

One of Newt Gingrich's first acts as speaker of the House in 1995 was to call for the elimination of federal funding for CPB, and for the privatization of public broadcasting. Neither attempt was successful, though it did keep the hot-button issue in the limelight for years.

Kenneth Tomlinson, who served as CPB chairman for two years until he resigned in 2005 because of an internal investigation, vigorously pushed for a more conservative point of view on public stations.

In 2005, a House subcommittee voted to drastically cut CPB funding, and eliminate all of it within two years, a move many blamed on Tomlinson himself.

"Republicans have never been fond of public broadcasting. Republicans have always thought that public broadcasting across the board is liberal, is not particularly supportive of Republican and conservative points of view," Sterling said. "Democrats tend not to think that, unless they're from very conservative districts."

It's not just Republicans, though, who have singled out CPB when it comes to overall budget cuts. President Obama's bipartisan deficit commission in November also suggested eliminating funding for CPB, estimating that it would save the government $500 million in 2015.

The impact of CPB funding cuts would vary from station to station, since funding sources for each can differ widely.

For NPR, only about 2 percent of its funding comes from federally funded organizations, while 40 percent of the revenue is generated through station programming fees and 26 percent through sponsorships.

NPR stations, however, rely more heavily on federal and state grants. CPB funding makes up 10 percent of funding; federal, state and local government funding constitutes about six percent of a station's revenue source while 32 percent comes from individuals and 21 percent from businesses.

The same holds true for PBS. While CPB appropriations equal about 15 percent of PBS's revenue, for many stations, the appropriation counts for as much as 40-50 percent of their budget, according to spokeswoman Anne Bentley.

While NPR has long been eyed as Republicans as liberal leaning, its audience base is diverse. Forty-five percent of its audience identify themselves as moderate, while 29 percent identify as liberal and 22 percent as Republicans, according to a Pew Research Center poll released in September. But most of its audience may be more sympathetic toward Democrats than other broadcast outlets.

Sixty-five percent of those polled in the Pew survey who watch NPR said they approved of the job President Obama is doing, higher than the overall national average.

It's not just Republicans in the House who are eyeing public television and radio for budget cuts. Some states are also looking at cutting back or altogether eliminating such funding.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell spearheaded efforts to end state funding for public broadcasts that last week got a nod of approval from the Virginia House of Delegates.

Similar legislation has been spearheaded across the country, in states like New Jersey and Colorado that are dealing with hefty budget deficits.

If these cuts do go into effect, stations will have to take drastic measures to stay on the airwaves.

"For some it would be, at least in short term, a disaster," Sterling said. "If you take away a big piece of that money, especially all at once... you'll see what's happening with some of the public universities."

"The short term would be tough," he added. "It'd probably mean layoffs. Some would limit their hours. In a few extreme situations a few might have to go off the air."

ABC News' Amy Bingham contributed to this report.

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