Patrick Butler Speaks at the Media Institute Luncheon

Remarks as prepared for delivery on Thursday, May 17, 2012.

Thank you, Patrick.

It’s an honor to speak at this Media Institute luncheon – odd as it seems to be standing here rather than sitting there – and it’s a pleasure to be among so many good friends.

I’ve known some of you for decades: Dick Wiley and I actually helped Samuel Morse draft the first telegram, right here in Washington, and while we wound up with “What hath God wrought?”, I remember Dick, even then, trying to think of words that started with H.D.T.V.

Most of you got here a little later, but we’ve all grown up together in a communications industry that has changed more profoundly during our careers than in all of previous history.

Such change has come to public television, as to all of your companies and industry sectors, and it is having an extraordinary effect on what we do and how we serve the American people – everyone, everywhere, every day, for free.

While some public television stations can trace their origins to the early 1950s, most began life as part of the “educational television” initiative inspired by President Eisenhower in the aftermath of the launch of the Sputnik satellite by the Soviet Union in 1957.

President Eisenhower’s vision of public television was a revolutionary means of enriching American students’ learning experience – especially in science, technology, engineering and math – to meet the challenges of the space race and the Cold war.

General Eisenhower saw public television, in effect, as an element of America’s national defense – in the same way he saw the interstate highway system – and 55 years later, it remains just so.

Through PBS Learning Media, the National Learning Registry, Sesame Workshop, and dozens of local and statewide educational initiatives undertaken by public television stations nationwide, public broadcasters today constitute America’s largest classroom.

Our work in early childhood education and development is well known, with dozens of peer-reviewed studies demonstrating how we help millions of pre-school children, particularly in inner cities and rural areas, get ready to learn and succeed in an academic environment.

Those studies also prove, conclusively, that these Ready to Learn programs help close the achievement gap between poor kids and middle-class kids.

But public television’s success in early childhood development is only the beginning of our contribution to lifelong learning for millions of Americans.

With nearly 20,000 interactive, standards-based, curriculum-aligned digital learning objects we’ve created from the best of public television programming over the last 40 years – as well as top-quality content from the Library of Congress, the National Archives, NASA, the National Science Foundation and other federal agencies – we are now helping to revolutionize the teaching and learning experience in K-12 classrooms across the country.

Five hundred thousand teachers have already sampled PBS Learning Media, and more than 200 public television stations in 42 States have joined forces in this work since we launched the program last June.

We bring world-class professors to the most remote schools in the country through “virtual high schools” we operate across the United States. 

To cite only one example, WHRO in Hampton Roads, Virginia – which is owned by 18 local school districts – offers online Advanced Placement and other enrichment courses to students in the remotest corners of Virginia, the nation and the world.

We run the most comprehensive GED program for hundreds of thousands of people whose high school education was interrupted prior to completion. 

Kentucky Educational Television has been a leader in this field for years, helping 20,000 people in Kentucky and 1.5 million people throughout the United states pass the GED exam, increase their earning capacity, and collectively contribute $2.5 billion more in tax dollars every year than they would have done as high-school dropouts.

We create educational video games like “Lure of the Labyrinth” with universities like Johns Hopkins and MIT to teach kids algebra while they think they’re having fun.

The long-time Superintendent of Education in Maryland has credited Maryland Public Television’s Thinkport online learning platform with helping raise Maryland public school students’ scholastic achievement to the highest in the country for the past four consecutive years.

As former Governor Jeb Bush, one of the nation’s most authoritative voices on education reform, told me last fall, our educational content, deployed with the latest in learning technology, can be the “tip of the spear” in educational reform to help improve the academic achievement of millions of American students.

And our nationwide infrastructure of 350 local stations can be a powerful distribution partner for all kinds of innovators in public education.

These examples only scratch the surface of what we’re doing in education, and education is only one of the essential public services we’re performing for the American people.

Public television spectrum provides the backbone for emergency alert, public safety and homeland security services in States across the country.  We’re the “C-SPAN” of many State governments. 

Next year Vegas PBS will be, by far, the biggest job trainer in Nevada, with 100,000 people taking a health certification course in food preparation to help them secure employment in the hospitality industry that is the State’s largest employer.

Jane Oates, the Obama Administration’s assistant secretary of Labor for employment and job training, was in Las Vegas just last week to see this work and described it with a single word:  “amazing.”

And as locally owned and operated media, we’re at the center of hundreds of community partnerships addressing issues ranging from gangs to obesity, from the challenges of Native Americans to the successful integration of recent immigrants.

This is not work typically associated with media enterprises, but we have a different mission than the one pursued by our commercial colleagues.  Our mission is to be public service media, to treat our viewers not as consumers but as citizens.

Governor Dave Heineman of Nebraska, chairman of the National Governors Association and a proudly conservative Republican, praised the work of Nebraska Educational Television at our Public Media Summit in February with this ultimate accolade: 

“It’s like Cornhusker football in our State – the respect, the admiration of how important NET is to our State.  It brings us together.”

We’re also trying to do this work more efficiently, and we are pursuing such initiatives as joint master control rooms, consolidated back-office operations, channel sharing, spectrum leasing, fee-for-service data and content management, and other innovations that may help us improve our service without increasing our costs.

And what is the cost to the federal taxpayer for all of this – this, and the works of Ken Burns, Sesame Street, Great Performances, American Experience, A Capitol Fourth, NOVA, Nature, Masterpiece’s dramatization of the complete works of Jane Austen, the PBS News Hour, and so much more -- to say nothing of the extraordinary news coverage and cultural contributions of NPR?

It is $1.35 per citizen per year.  In Japan, it’s $63.  In Great Britain, $84.  We can provide these services at such low cost to taxpayers because for every dollar in federal funding we receive, we generate $6 in non-federal contributions from foundations, corporations, State and local governments, and “viewers like you.”

This is the largest and most successful public-private partnership in the United States.  And it is one of the reasons President Reagan changed his mind about federal funding of public broadcasting during a conversation with Ken Burns while Ken was completing his masterpiece, The Civil War. 

The President told Ken the public-private funding model was exactly right for the American approach to public broadcasting, and he expressed great gratitude to Ken for “preserving the national memory” – yet another mission central to public television’s public service. 

170 million Americans regularly rely on the public service media I’ve described here.  Public opinion surveys routinely rank public television as the most trusted institution in the nation, with 76 percent in the most recent poll saying they trust us – more than trust our courts of law. 

Nearly 70 percent, across the political spectrum, support continued federal funding – including nearly half of self-identified Tea Party advocates.

And for nine years in a row, since the question was first asked, Americans have said that public broadcasting is the second best investment of federal funds, after national defense alone.

This investment has been reduced by over $50 million – about 13 percent of our overall federal funding – over the past two fiscal years, in response to the budget and deficit challenges facing our country. 

Our core Corporation for Public Broadcasting funding has been flat, and level funding is all we’re requesting for the foreseeable future.

In a 2007 study – before the economy collapsed – the GAO concluded that federal funding is essential to the operation of public broadcasting, as none of our other funders supports the station operations, infrastructure needs, universal service requirements, educational missions and other special circumstances of non-commercial, non-profit public broadcasting.

We’re trying to do very important things on a remarkably modest budget.  Our mission is nothing less than to create a well-educated, well-informed, cultured and civil society capable of performing the duties of self-government in the world’s greatest democracy.

We believe there’s nothing more important to America’s success than this, and we believe this is work worthy of federal support, as bipartisan majorities of Congress and Presidents of both parties have agreed for four decades.

Eliminating federal funding for public broadcasting would reduce the federal budget by a microscopic one-hundredth of one percent. But it would have a devastating effect on all the good work we’re trying to do for the American people.

We aspire to be media that matter, to keep faith with the visions of political, educational, philanthropic and community leaders across the decades who have seen in public television the potential to transform our society in fundamentally constructive ways, particularly in the work of lifelong learning and enlightened citizenship.

We believe we can be at the center of public and private partnerships everywhere whose collective impact on the most daunting challenges our country faces can be profound.

We are, for example, in the planning stages of an initiative to help America’s military service members and their families cope with all the challenges of education, job training, health care and other essentials of their lives, even as we honor their valiant volunteer service to our country.

I’ve just returned from the PBS annual meeting in Denver, where our national programming schedule for next fall is being unveiled, and I am happy to report that in addition to a third season of Downton Abbey, public television will be broadcasting several of Shakespeare’s best history plays – Richard II and Henry IV among them – as well as Wagner’s complete Ring cycle performed by the Metropolitan Opera, and many other such educational and cultural treasures you simply cannot find anywhere else in our vast media universe.

Oscar Wilde once said that “America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.”  This is manifestly untrue, but it is important that we never sacrifice civilization for commercialization – no matter how compelling the Kardashians may be.

We in public television aspire to be the civilizing force in American society, the preserver of the national memory, the greatest classroom, the grandest stage, the community center and the champion of good citizenship.

We hope to pursue these ambitions by creating new business models, embracing new technologies, streamlining our operations, embedding ourselves deeply in American education, and maintaining the high standards of programming and public service the American people have come to expect of us.

These are the goals that tempted me out of retirement, after a long career in public service and media management.

The opportunity to pursue both of those passions simultaneously was simply too much to resist, and I couldn’t be prouder of my new association with the men and women of public media.

I appreciate this opportunity to tell you about their extraordinary contributions to our country. I thank you all for the support you’ve given us in our times of trial and triumph alike.  And with a mission like ours and “viewers like you,” I believe the future of public television -- and of the nation and the people we serve -- is very bright indeed.