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A Post-PBS Educational Television Landscape

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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With the latest tirade against the Public Broadcast Service (PBS) by republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney during the first debate, it is worth to look at a world without PBS through children’s eyes. Much has already been said of the short-sightedness of Romney’s statement: “I’m sorry, Jim. I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m going to stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you, too. But I’m not going to — I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it.”

PBS has often been a target of conservatives as wasteful spending, many of whom feel PBS can survive on its own without government subsidy, and is often viewed as liberally biased. Whether one believes that the $450 million government subsidy to PBS is justifiable or not, this subsidy is merely 0.00012% of the federal budget. Additionally, PBS receives about 15% of its total operating funds from the government subsidy, while Sesame Street is nearly entirely paid for through corporate sponsorships and merchandising deals. In short, zeroing out PBS’ budget does little to balance the books either on paper or in practice.

Losing the government subsidy will not cause PBS to disappear off the map, but it will effect the number of stations that can operate. In particular, rural areas which tend to be higher in poverty receive up to 70% of their individual station funding from state and federal subsidies. Decreasing access to public television in areas of the country with fewer educational options could be very detrimental not just to families, but to schools which rely on PBS’ educational programming as a teaching aide in the classroom. When my son was in Kindergarten in a very rural school in North Carolina, teachers often used PBS kids programing in conjunction with their lessons to keep students’ interest and offer a diversity of ways of presenting information to them. PBS content is vital because it is not commercially tied, is created in consultation with educational experts and to federal standards, and in schools where budgets hang by threads the content is freely available.

If Romney were elected and kept his promise to stop the PBS subsidy, what would the television programming landscape for children look like? In addition to morning and afternoon children’s educational programming on PBS, children’s programming exists only on cable television stations like Disney Channels, Nickelodean and Nick Jr., Hub, Cartoon Network and some morning and afternoon programming on select religious TV channels. Of all the children’s channels mentioned only Nick Jr. and Disney Jr. offer dedicated educational programming. Other stations’ programming does not even come close the educational value of these 2 stations and PBS, existing only for “entertainment” value and not education. Many of the non-educational options depict violence, glamorize slapstick behavior and contain few situations that aide in children’s cognitive development.

In an interview with Soledad O’Brien, Reading Rainbow (PBS) host Levar Burton was “outraged” and saw the threats of Romney  ”as an attack on children who come from a disenfranchised, you know, background.” Low-income families in particular spend the most time watching television. If poor families cannot afford cable television it is likely their only option for quality content is PBS programming. And let’s be real, regardless of anyone’s opinions about television and childrearing and education, children WILL be watching some amount of television each week, if not each day. It is better that content be educational or aide in cognitive development than to be merely entertaining.

In a study of a group of children in Oklahoma Geist and Gibson (2000) divided 62 children into 3 treatments: one group watched Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood (a long-running educational PBS program), one group watched Power Rangers (a noneducational commercial network program) and a control group did not watch a TV program but engaged with instructional materials. They measured 3 simple variables: ability to attend to a task, time engaged in the task, and engagement in “rough and tumble play”. Even acknowledging the limitations of their “convenience sample” of 62 children, authors found statistical significances among the 3 groups. The “rangers” group had more difficulty sticking to tasks and spent less time on task than the control group. Qualitatively, only the “rangers” group engaged in a rough and tumble play style with kicking and punching emulating the characters of the Power Rangers show.

Regardless or socio-economic factors, though, educational programming has shown a string of benefits to young children and their families.  Children benefit from increased school readiness skills and families that watch Sesame Street and other educational offerings on PBS tend to watch it together more often than noneducational network programming (Wright et al. 2001). Time and again, it is shown that the relationship of watching television to early school readiness skills depends primarily on the content of the programs viewed. Removing quality content is detrimental to all audiences, but hits low-income and rural demographics the hardest. A educational television landscape in a post-PBS world might only be attainable to those who can afford cable or satellite TV access, and even then at the expense of being lambasted with advertising. A candidate for president who truly values education and prioritizes the basic needs of the least fortunate Americans would not be defunding a long-running, prominent educational institution who provides a high quality, high demand service at a comparatively low cost to the government where commercial sectors fail to fill this gap affordably.

Geist, Eugene A., & Gibson, Marty (2000). The Effect of Network and Public Television Programs on Four and Five Year Olds Ability to Attend to Educational Tasks. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 27 (4), 250-261
Wright JC, Huston AC, Murphy KC, St Peters M, Piñon M, Scantlin R, & Kotler J (2001). The relations of early television viewing to school readiness and vocabulary of children from low-income families: the early window project. Child development, 72 (5), 1347-66 PMID: 11700636

Kevin Zelnio About the Author: Kevin has a M.Sc. degree in biology from Penn State, a B.Sc. in Evolution and Ecology from University of California, Davis, and has worked at as a researcher at several major marine science institutions. His broad academic research interests have encompassed population genetics, biodiversity, community ecology, food webs and systematics of invertebrates at deep-sea chemosynthetic environments and elsewhere. Kevin has described several new species of anemones and shrimp. He is now a freelance writer, independent scientist and science communications consultant living near the Baltic coast of Sweden in a small, idyllic village.

Kevin is also the assistant editor and webmaster for Deep Sea News, where he contributes articles on marine science. His award-winning writing has been appeared in Seed Magazine, The Open Lab: Best Writing on Science Blogs (2007, 2009, 2010), Discovery Channel, ScienceBlogs, and Environmental Law Review among others. He spends most of his time enjoying the company of his wife and two kids, hiking, supporting local breweries, raising awareness for open access, playing guitar and songwriting. You can read up more about Kevin and listen to his music at his homepage, where you can also view his CV and Résumé, and follow him twitter and Google +. Editor's Selection Posts on EvoEcoLab!

Follow on Twitter @kzelnio.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 14 Comments

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  1. 1. Truthseeker 11:49 am 10/6/2012

    Careful, Mr. Zelnio, your political biases are showing. I watched the same debate you did Wednesday evening (at least I _THINK_ I did) and I saw no such “tirade against the Public Broadcast Service (PBS)” by republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. He said he planned to end the subsidy for PBS. Many of us consider PBS to be extremely leftist. The political views presented are never conservative. Yet those of us who disagree with the philosophy of PBS are compelled to support those abhorrent views. Thomas Jefferson once said “To compel a man to furnish funds for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.” I ask you, sir, would you appreciate being forced to support a radio and television network where Rush Limbaugh’s views were the norm? If you answered in the negative, then why do believe it is acceptable to force me and others like minded to do so? Oh, and while caring for my now two-year-old grandson I have watched no small number of episodes of Sesame Street and while most of its message is benign, I have seen many instances of what I consider to be socialist indoctrination.

    In the final analysis, even the head of PBS admits that federal funding amounts to only 15% of PBS’ total funding. Surely all the fine statists who are so enamored of PBS would be willing to make up that paltry 15% out of their own resources rather than force those of us who find much of PBS’ message abhorrent to contribute involuntarily.

    I used to listen to PBS radio. I enjoyed “All Things Considered”. I also enjoyed (and still enjoy) listening to classical music on PBS. I also used to enjoy NOVA and a couple of other series on PBS TV. But in recent years the message on PBS has gotten so very partisan laftist that I no longer listen to or watch any of it.

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  2. 2. EricMJohnson 2:37 am 10/7/2012

    Actually, $450 million is the annual federal budget for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, only 12% of which goes to PBS (according to Forbes: This equals $54 million. In comparison to the national debt of 11 trillion this is like a 100 lb. sailor standing next to a 97,000 ton aircraft carrier.

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  3. 3. lakawak 5:43 am 10/7/2012

    So throw some fu**ing commercials one it. Isntead of being brought to us by the Letters C and L and bu the number 8, it can be brought to us by Cheerios and Capri Sun. And by the Lumber Liquidators.

    People should not be FORCED to fund any TV. It is simply unnecessary. And whining about “Won’t someone think of the POOR children” just shows that you are more interested in playing the race or poor card than being intelligent.

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  4. 4. lakawak 5:44 am 10/7/2012

    Eric…first of all…ALL of that money should be stopped. Not just PBS money. And still…your comment is idioitc anyway. To say “Well, we waste a lot of money, so why not waste more.” is just stupid.

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  5. 5. lakawak 5:46 am 10/7/2012

    Why not have George Soros prop it up? He LOVES to fund media ventures that can’t survive on their own merits.

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  6. 6. lakawak 5:48 am 10/7/2012

    Kevin…just what is an “independent scientist” anyway? Becuase nothing you wrote contains science at all. Just the typical bitching of a bitch. Your mother is SO glad you moved out the the country. Because it is easier to tell her friends that you died.

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  7. 7. Proteios1 1:01 pm 10/7/2012

    It’s good to know you aren’t burdened by things such as facts and don’t stay up nights wasting time researching information you present. I see why you no longer ‘science’. This is such garbage, I’m amaze SA would permit it. I guess some editors aren’t concerned with integrity as much as political platforms. And the SA audience…yea, were not known for discerning statements or facts.

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  8. 8. Obbop 4:26 pm 10/7/2012

    Please omit the dreaded “It’s for the children” emotional appeal out of the argument for continued funding.

    If anything, oust the intrusive child labor laws and put the vile spawn back into the fields, factories and mines.

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  9. 9. geojellyroll 5:53 pm 10/7/2012

    PBS ‘had’ its spot. In the age of the Internet it’s less relevent each year.

    Also, Romney did not advocate closing PBS…he advocated not using government funds. Our family has been a PBS donor for 40 plus years. Our choice.

    The USA has a 16 trillion dollar debt. Some comments are disturbing…’it’s only a piddly ‘x’ amount’. Every penny counts when this much debt is hanging around the neck. A few million here, a few billion there…what an irresponsible attitude…I hope individuals in debt don’t run their own finances this way.

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  10. 10. marclevesque 7:31 pm 10/7/2012

    I feel that a government funded alternative to profit driven information media is a valid option, and the question of whether or not PBS is ideologically biased, and what to do about it if it is, is a separate issue.

    Keeping government expenses reasonable is a good thing, but I feel Romney’s targeting of PBS as a source of savings are basically misdirection, and, ideologically driven.

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  11. 11. patrickh74 1:05 pm 10/8/2012

    Its for the children. I agree. If you want PBS to survive, donate ANYTHING! $10 a year was what my mom could afford. $10 a year is what I gave. I suggest parents whose children watch PBS drink 1 less cup of coffee a month and write a tax deductable donation to Big Bird. It’s just that simple.

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  12. 12. tucanofulano 2:22 pm 10/8/2012

    Cancel my several subscriptions as this article is the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’. In point of fact PBS represents a fraction of a fraction of our taxes, nevertheless, the political un-American bias causes far more harm than any possible good. Stop using ANY of my tax money for the support of the drivel and bias on PBS. PBS can either self-support or disappear.

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  13. 13. Southern Fried Scientist 2:35 pm 10/8/2012

    These comments are adorable. I hope you all feel better now that you’ve gotten that off your chests.

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  14. 14. chrisschmidt 5:08 pm 10/10/2012

    I work for NOVA and I have to say that I’m always amazed by the level of rage in the posts of people who disagree with the pro-PBS subsidy side of the argument.

    There are three groups of people I think. Those who like PBS and are okay with government support. Those who would like PBS to disappear or just don’t care one way or another.

    Romney has been speaking to a middle group — those who (like him presumably) like PBS but want it to stand on it’s own. My position is that it is unrealistic to assume that a commercial version of PBS will remain the PBS that he and others claim to enjoy.

    I wrote a blog post about this — please read if you would like to know more from the point of view of someone who has worked in both commercial and public TV:

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