Explorations and ideas at the intersection between Evolution and Ecology

A Post-PBS Educational Television Landscape


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

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

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