Save Big Bird from the chopping block? NOT!

Isn’t that a cool sounding post title? It was the subject of an action alert ‘spam’ 🙂 email I got – minus the NOT! – from It describes the attacks on Public Broadcasting from the right wing. For starters I will miss Big Bird and the Sesame Street crew if they are forced off the air because of budget cuts. Those happy muppets were a positive part of many children’s lives. But honestly why not just let those arrogant republicans take away funding? Yep you read that right. Let them kill Public Broadcasting! Why?! For petes sake why?

Because our government is owned by big corporations, has been for decades. How can anything owned by a corporation be truly publicly created or owned? Public Broadcasting stopped being grassroots and owned by the people long ago. Let a large void be left in the place of Public Broadcasting. Something better will fill the void. The fundraising for public media in America should be conducted for small, local, grassroots productions. Groups that your neighbors work with.

You might think that the void will only be filled with crappy commercial cable TV show for children with tons of ads. Well, that isn’t the only option for parents. We have community radio for kids of all ages, public access TV for kids, books, sports, music, podcasting for kids, etc., etc. All created by amateurs. Not corporations. Why shouldn’t these community created options replace Big Bird and all other Public Broadcasting programming?

Because I respect the people who work hard at Public Broadcasting I propose a exit strategy for them. PUT ALL CONTENT EVER MADE WITH PUBLIC MONEY INTO THE PUBLIC DOMAIN.

Give it away. Even better use a Creative Commons license to help prevent Disney from stealing Big Bird and turning him into the next Mickey Mouse. By giving ALL publicly funded content back to the people who paid for it you will ensure a RICH cultural future and lots of media for the public to work with. Turn this tragedy into a positive strategic move. One that will really give the people the public media they paid for.

3 thoughts on “Save Big Bird from the chopping block? NOT!”

  1. Come on, Brian – tell us what you really think. 🙂

    Seriously, though – nicely provocative. As a former employee of the public broadcasting community (I spent five years developing Internet grant programs at the Corp for Public Broadcasting) and as a periodic independent producer, I want to respond specifically to your idea of putting all publicly funded programming into the public domain. Great idea. But let’s talk about why it’ll never happen.

    In public broadcasting, we’re dealing with multiple types of producers getting funding from multiple sources. You’ve got programming being produced by the stations themselves, by programming networks (like NPR and PRI), independent producers in the US and abroad, and co-productions that mix it up with all of the above. In most cases, funding for these programs come from a mix of sources of well, the vast majority of which is privately funded. Except in extremely rare cases, public broadcasting programs are never fully funded by public sources (I don’t know of any offhand); usually it’s the exact opposite, with slim amounts of govt funding being overshadowed by large private sources. To complicate matters, you’ve got independent producers out there trying to make a living, some of which are proudly for-profit entities simply doing contract work for public broadcasting. Copyright control lets them pay the bills.

    Meanwhile, you’ve got tons of programming – gazillions of reels, tapes, hard drives, film stock, you name it – that was produced over a period of several decades, in which the contracts that commissioned or licensed them clearly state who has ownership of the programming. In most cases, it’s owned by the producer and licensed by the broadcaster for X amount of time. As a miniscule independent producer myself (my wife and I made a feature documentary that was broadcast worldwide by the National Geographic Channel), I know what it’s like negotiating even the smallest licensing contract. And words like Public Domain and Creative Commons simply aren’t factored in, even if you want them to, because broadcasters often demand exclusive air time for a pre-determined period. So though I would have loved to have put our film online, it would have meant that Nat Geo would have never aired it – or paid the bills for it. So as long as there are contracts in place and producers are still in a position to recoop their losses from additional airplay, they’re rarely willing to considering “giving away” their content.

    Perhaps it might be possible to create a policy in which any programming receiving X percent of its production funding from public sources to put their content out on a creative commons license after a particular time period has passed. That way, if you got 20% of your funds from the Feds, after you’ve had time to license it, recoop lost revenues, etc, it would eventually become a noncommercial CC license. Even then, you could still sell it for commericial use, but noncommercial use would be kosher. I don’t know what the percentage threshold would be, though. If you said that any amount of public funding would trigger such a clause, it’d never stand a chance. Maybe 20%? 33%? 50+%? Who knows. Chances are the public broadcasting and production communities would never go for it, though.


  2. By your description of funding in Public Broadcast it seems that it was never fiscally 100% public. It is then merely a government funding model for independent and small business media creators. (Perhaps large corporate media producers too.) This is a good thing, IMHO. Government has a responsibility to promote culture. But that’s not the public perception of the CPB.

    I bet that if they said during all those fund raising drives, “Please donate so we can subsidize contracts will all of our independent contractors.” folks wouldn’t give so much. Not saying people should give, if they can, to help subsidize programming. People think they are the major donors. We are told over and over, We own it. If we don’t maybe it isn’t such a good idea to invest in it.

    Why not then remove the word Public from the Public Broadcasting phrase? Then it’ll be more accurate. We could use the phrase ‘Corporation for Funded Broadcasting’ or ‘US Broadcasting’… etc. But that would irk the anti-competitive right wingers. I guess that’s what this whole destruction of the Public Broadcasting is all about. – to remove the competition.

    Again, I love the programming that CPB funds, but if it has to be controlled by the whims of a particular congress or president… I say let it die.

    Guess it’s obvious I rather revolutionize media than reform it. My suggestions and out loud thoughts here are overwhelmingly creative and possibly naïve. And that’s how they will stay. I grasp and understand the practical “reality” of our media world, but refuse to not imagine and work towards a different paradigm.

  3. If I remember correctly, about 14% of public broadcasting’s total annual spending comes from the federal government. That number got cited a lot when Congress went after CPB in 95 and 96. We always made a point in emphasizing that each federal dollar leverages around seven bucks in private funding.

    One thing to remember is that CPB’s main role isn’t funding programming, though it certainly does that. CPB funds infrastructure, helping low-income and rural stations stay afloat. The money passed through CPB kept rural community radio stations on air, and has helped PBS stations prepare for the transition to digital.

    The big problem is that most people don’t understand all of these arcane relations between pbs, npr, cpb, pri, etc. Marketing studies show that PBS is one of the most respected brands in America – the challenge is that it doesn’t translate to political capital, except when PBS is under threat and there’s a public storm of outrage. But for whatever reason, I’m not sensing that public groundswell with the latest attacks on pubcasting. There’s a lot of press about it, but not as much grass roots. Unfortunately I think we’re just getting used to attacks and don’t know how to deal with them anymore…


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