It’s not the first time that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has faced the threat of extinction from federal and Congressional budget proposals, and perhaps not the last. But as CPB’s chief executive officer told television critics at a recent meeting in Beverly Hills, anything is possible in the climate currently gripping Washington.
President Trump’s budget for 2018, up for consideration and a vote this fall, zeroes out funding for the CPB among the other usual victims nominated for the chopping block, such as the National Endowment for the Arts. The CPB disburses a significant portion of its federal support to regional, more cash-strapped stations that take to the airwaves each quarter or so to elicit support from viewers and members. If that funding loss becomes reality, look for outlets like West Virginia Public Broadcasting, which also airs on TV and radio in much of southern Ohio, to suffer and possibly close, said CPB’s Paula Kerger. Cuts also threaten operations such as Athens-based WOUB-TV and its radio station, similarly seen and heard in portions of West Virginia, including Point Pleasant, Parkersburg and points north on the Ohio River.
“PBS will not go away, but a number of our stations will,” said Kerger. The loss of that support would be keenly felt by some of the 1,500 stations without a solid base of state or local donors and contributors to their operation. Having lost about $1 million in state funding in the current budget, WVPB is now taking a serious look at revamping its schedule to deal with fewer dollars.
In fact, the station circulated a survey online and via Facebook to its members to gauge what they want to see and hear in the future. Among the TV programs likely to be dropped are the Saturday morning British situation comedies that have been a fixture since the 1980s. There are compelling reasons for doing so beyond the cost, as the service is using aging broadcast tapes that don’t always comport well with digital transmission, and that the BBC is not as forthcoming in releasing newer shows, opting instead for the presumably more lucrative streaming services. This is also sadly true, for with the exception of “Last of the Summer Wine” and “As Time Goes By,” none of Channel 33’s lineup is newer than 1995, with old reliable “Are You Being Served?” going back to the ’70s. Yet, these shows have become old friends to those of us who enjoy them, and they will be missed by the same group that likes to start the weekends with a leisurely laugh.
But change is inevitable for fans if they are to continue to enjoy 24-hour programming, “Masterpiece,” the original dramatic series “Mercy Street” and the upcoming documentary series on the Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. Not to mention radio, home of “Mountain Stage,” one of West Virginia’s best marketing tools, and classical music during the daytime to soothe the nerves of folks just trying to get through the day. WOUB-FM unfortunately lost some listeners about a decade ago when it switched from this format to discussion programs.
And in my humble opinion, PBS and National Public Radio’s news is about the best there is. An acquaintance once told me that public broadcasting was “too liberal” for his taste, but I learned more about the Tea Party and conservative movements in a balanced way from NPR than I did from the evening network sound bytes and talking heads on cable. People may mock the low-key announcing and approach of PBS and NPR as opposed to the staccato bursts of radio news from such sources as ABC, but it tells us they are watching and listening.
Admittedly, in our region, TV viewership is a problem because PBS stations are mostly seen on cable or satellite, something people can’t always afford. They can be accessed off-air, although the farther away from the station you are, the less accessible it is due to distance and interference. However, it is available through streaming via laptop or desk computers. And the support that continues to keep PBS going seems to come from individuals who appreciate what public broadcasting has to offer, folks who spurn the notion that both public TV and radio are solely for elitists.
“People assume that we’re there for Nob Hill and Beacon Hill, when, in fact, some of our best ratings are in Alaska and Arkansas … or West Virginia or Oklahoma,” Burns, of “The Civil War” fame, told critics at the same gathering where Kerger spoke. “This is really who we’re talking to.”
If this concerns you at all, take the time to write, e-mail, Facebook or Twitter your congressmen and senators from both sides of the Ohio River and plead the local case for public broadcasting’s future, or simply tell them how much you enjoy the service. Let’s find out if the apparently supportive public service spots Shelley Capito and David McKinley have done for WVPB are sincere or so much lip service. Conspicuous by their non-participation in these segments are the other three members of West Virginia’s congressional delegation, which may be a sign of their sentiments toward WVPB and how their votes will go.
Congress will take up the budget proposal in September and hopefully, do the right thing for government funding of PBS and the arts. If not, more’s the pity, since without them, our lives and those of our children will be that much poorer.
Kevin Kelly, who was affiliated with Ohio Valley Publishing for 21 years, resides in Vinton, Ohio.