It's been a month of highs and lows for public broadcasting's Paula Kerger.
With her attention divided between Downton Abbey's 16 Emmy nominations and Fred Willard's recent public lewdness scandal, the over-extended PBS president found time this weekend to come out swinging against a new House GOP measure that would eliminate federal funding to PBS's 360 member stations.
Speaking in Beverly Hills at the 2012 Summer TCA Tour -- a semi-annual gathering of television critics from the United States and Canada -- Kerger said she was disappointed that she has to constantly justify the existence of public broadcasting. According to the Vancouver Sun, Kerger's comment was made to a journalist who asked why taxpayers should continue to fund PBS when all it does is duplicate what other cable networks are already doing.
I'm not sure there has been a press tour that I haven't talked about this issue, Kerger said, apparently annoyed. When you look at the value people place on public broadcasting and, ironically, in the same week we accumulated so many Emmy [nominations], to question whether federal investment in public broadcasting is appropriate is disheartening.
Kerger also fielded several questions about the actor Fred Willard, who was arrested last week for allegedly engaging in a lewd act at an adult movie theater in Hollywood. Following the arrest, Willard was abruptly fired as the host of the PBS series Market Warriors, a spinoff of its popular Antiques Roadshow, both of which are produced by Boston's WGBH-TV. Kerger defended her decision, saying that the unfortunate circumstances surrounding Willard's arrest would distract from the new program. In response to the incident, the actor tweeted early Monday, Wait til u hear my version; much more PG.
But it was the ongoing debate over federal funding that Kerger said was PBS's most pressing issue. Kerger said that PBS receives about 15 percent of its total funding from the federal government, but that percentage is higher in rural areas where viewer support is lower. She went on to say that some stations would go dark if federal support were pulled.
On July 17, House Republicans unveiled a spending bill that would eliminate funding for public television and its radio companion, NPR. The bill would also axe support for Planned Parenthood and the AmeriCorps service program created under Bill Clinton. In a statement, Rep. Norm Dicks, a Washington State Democrat, called the bill an extremely bipartisan proposal that stands little chance of even being brought up on the House floor. But the measure has put Kerger and PBS on the defense nonetheless.
This is not the first time that Republicans in Congress have tried to put public broadcasting on the chopping block. Similar measures surfaced in 2010 and 2011, with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor stating that the federal government must reassess its funding priorities at a time when it is borrowing 40 cents of every dollar that it spends.
But some Democrats charge that efforts to cut federal dollars to public broadcasting are motivated not by budgetary concerns but by the broadcast networks' perceived liberal bias. Last year, in response to a bill that would have eliminated federal funding to NPR, Rep. John Larson of Connecticut told PBS NewsHour that Republicans are trying to silence the network because it is not on the same ideological frequency of the extreme right.
Meanwhile, a 2011 survey conducted by the bipartisan polling firms of Hart Research and American Viewpoint show overwhelming support for PBS, with 69 percent of those polled opposing efforts to cut federal funding to its stations. That same poll also found that 44 percent of Americans trust PBS a great deal, verses 15 percent who trust broadcast television and 9 percent who trust cable.
As for which sources Americans trust least, it was a close race -- with the federal government and big business both placing near the bottom. The U.S. Congress placed last.