Cuts to public broadcasting will affect quality kids' shows

Op-ed: Trump is trying to take Sesame Street away from you.

A tidal wave of unintended consequences could soon hit children's media. The Trump administration wants to cut all funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which is one of the larger sources of support for PBS. If this vital network is flatlined, we may enter a time when quality programming for children — and the education that goes with it — becomes simply inaccessible to millions.

Classic shows like "Sesame Street," "Mr. Rogers Neighborhood," and "3-2-1 Contact" introduced multiple generations of children to literacy, emotions and science on their local PBS stations. Their modern counterparts, including "Word Girl," "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood" and "Odd Squad," continue this tradition of learning. For decades, these shows offered a counterpart to the heavily commercialized shows available on the networks and cable.

If CPB is defunded, it won't go all at once. Most stations only receive a portion of their revenue from it. For example Maryland's MPT receives about 9 percent of its revenue from CPB; the rest comes from grants, state funds and, of course, "viewers like you." But the loss of CPB funding will make the production of children's programming more difficult. Ready-to-learn grants are a cooperative endeavor between the federal Department of Education (also a recipient of budget cuts) and the CPB. Zero out the funding from the CPB, and zero quality shows for kids may result.

In the past, there have been threats to lower the boom on PBS, NPR and other providers or carriers of content. But this time it feels different — and that could be because the game of TV has changed.

Here's an example: The PBS natural science themed show "Nature Cat" is partially underwritten by Capri Sun, a juice manufacturer. But companies like this rely on imported ingredients, like fruit, and soon their business could see a 20 percent "border tax" on their raw materials. This will shrink their profit margins, which in turn could dissuade Capri Sun from making philanthropic contributions to "Nature Cat" and other shows. The next likely step in this downward spiral would be that families might reduce the amount of money that members donate to their local station, reducing the ability to buy a wide variety of programming for distribution.

Unintended consequences? Yes, But there's something else going on: The free market will fill the gap.

Last summer, "Sesame Street" moved from PBS to HBO as a way to pay for the continued production of the show. "Sesame Street" was originally created to teach inner-city children to be ready for kindergarten. Now that goal has been upended, and new episodes are available exclusively to premium cable subscribers; PBS can run them nine months later, but if those local stations don't survive, those who don't have premium cable won't see them. Back in the 1970s, the show's street set was representative of the target audience. Today, a gentrified set shows an idyllic urban setting — it's more like Park Slope than a typical city neighborhood — suggesting the show has already philosophically left its roots.

The economic abundance that once allowed for much of what we came to know as "the electronic town square" — including the highly valued teaching of our children — is being sliced up. And what slice your kid gets depends on your class and what technology you can buy. Call it what you will, but all of our kids are being shortchanged.

Perhaps the local PBS affiliates' time has come and we need to think of new ways to create and distribute children's programming. The Internet has long been the bastion of open and free exchanges of ideas. Well, it was. The new administration also has made it clear that it does not like Net Neutrality — the rules that keep the Internet from being manipulated by telecom giants for maximizing profits and playing favorites. Not only that, but the Pew Research Center reports that only two-thirds of American households even have access to broadband. Compare that to the 99 percent of households with TVs and the near 95 percent of Americans who receive PBS. For now, any Internet-based workaround for accessing quality children's programming is only going to lead to partial success, especially in a city like Baltimore where we have poor broadband and little choice.

Ironically, it appears that some of our leaders missed out on the lessons of civility and fairness that were extolled during the best days of PBS. Mr. Rogers once said, "One of the greatest dignities of humankind is that each successive generation is invested in the welfare of each new generation." If the officials who control public television's purse strings understood that, they might recognize that it's better to share, to stay open-minded and to play well with others. There is no price tag for these qualities, but if we choose to ignore this advice, we surely will pay.

Greg Walsh is an assistant professor in the Division of Science, Information Arts and Technologies at the University of Baltimore, where he focuses on user centered design and children's technologies. He can be reached at gwalsh@ubalt.edu.

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