Neal Menefee: Public media provides unique services that positively impact our communities

It has been more than 40 years since President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. This resulted in the distinctly American creation of public television and public radio, which at its core was meant to provide a service to “enrich man’s spirit.”

WVPT Public Television has demonstrated that public media has met and enhanced Virginians’ appetite for enrichment and excellence by becoming one of the most effective public-private partnerships of the past 40 years. It has been embraced as an essential part of our region’s fabric through innovative, award-winning, trustworthy programming unmatched in broadcasting. “Sesame Street” alone has won more Emmy Awards than any program in the history of television, and has been shown to improve preschoolers’ reading and achievement—a particularly worthy outcome for children from disadvantaged families. And at a time when nearly half of America’s children are not prepared to succeed when they enter kindergarten – a much greater importance must be placed on the uniquely PBS programs like “Sesame Street” and more recently “WordWorld” and “Super Why!” among others, all of which have been shown to help children develop early language and literacy skills. Without public television many children will enter school without the skills they need and our school systems will use too many of their limited resources to help these children catch up to their peers.

However, public media’s very existence – yes, your local PBS station WVPT – is under serious threat at this moment, with legislation to totally defund public TV and public radio pending in both the Virginia General Assembly and in Washington. In Richmond, the current budget, as proposed by Governor McDonnell, calls for the elimination of state funding for public broadcasting within two years. The impact of these proposed cuts would be devastating, if not fatal, for WVPT and other public media outlets.

In Richmond, a major argument put forth by those in favor of defunding is that similar programming is available in the free market. Certainly, while public TV is not the only source of good programming, it provides far more hours of enriching programs than any other organization (approximately 26,000 hours each year with WVPT’s three program services). And it does so with free access and no commercial interruptions.

The “free market” has yet to produce a solid slate of research-based, intellectually rigorous children’s programming, as previously mentioned, that can educate, entertain and address children’s real-life experiences on their terms. It has yet to demonstrate a sustained commitment to the performing arts on the scale of “Live From Lincoln Center” and “Great Performances”, or to the history of our nation as seen in “American Experience” and the extraordinary documentaries of Ken Burns. The standards of journalistic excellence and civility found on “The PBS NewsHour” and “Frontline” belong to PBS alone. And no where else will you find a program like WVPT’s own “Virginia Farming” – the only television series in the Commonwealth devoted to two of the most important economic features of Virginia, agriculture and the environment. No wonder respondents to the annual GfK Roper poll consistently rank PBS as the most trusted institution in the country.

Likewise, public funding does not provide an unfair advantage to public TV and radio. The Federal Communications Commission prohibits businesses that support public media from using promotional language in their on-air spots, adding to the challenge of recruiting corporate support for public media programming.

Additional cuts to WVPT could tear out the very soul of public TV: its educational mission. Along with other Virginia public TV stations, WVPT provides important instructional services to schools that already face major budget pressures. Schools have requested that these services come from public TV because of its cost-effective business practices and education mission. In our region, WVPT serves 22 school districts—benefiting approximately 115,000 students and thousands of teachers with the variety of on-air and online resources available for classroom use and professional development.

For WVPT, state funding has declined by more than 50 percent over the past decade and almost 40 percent just since 2008, highlighting the gravity of more reductions. They have the potential to financially destabilize and even destroy the irreplaceable daily achievements of public TV and radio. We believe a majority of viewers in our region, the Commonwealth and the nation appreciate the value of these organizations, but your voices are needed as never before.

So in answer to Governor McDonnell’s question regarding whether or not support of public television is a role for the state I answer a resounding “yes”.

The promotion of trusted communications and effective preschool education for our children is good public policy. Please act today by contacting your elected officials in the Virginia General Assembly and the U.S. Congress. Tell them you recognize an investment in excellence when you see one, and they should do so as well.

Neal Menefee is president of The Rockingham Group, and is board chair of WVPT Public Television.

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