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Death to Elmo?

A Tuttle legislator plans to phase out funding for public television.

Clifton Adcock November 16th, 2011

An effort is under way at the state Capitol to shut down funding for the state’s public television network, the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority.

Rep. Leslie Osborn, R-Tuttle, has said she plans to introduce legislation in the next session that would phase out public funding for OETA over the next five years.

Currently, OETA receives about $3.8 million in state funds, or approximately 39 percent of the program’s total budget. The balance comes from donations.

Osborn, who did not respond to calls seeking comment, was also the author of a bill suspending the Art in Public Places provision in state contracts and an interim study on privatizing state parks.

right,  OETA’s John McCarroll

In her testimony before the House’s Appropriations and Budget Committee’s education subcommittee on Nov. 1, Osborn said she was not questioning whether OETA provides a valuable service, but whether funding it is a core government function. “I don’t think the question is if OETA is a worthy entity, or does it provide a useful service, because clearly it does,” Osborn told the subcommittee. “I think the question is: Is spending on television a core government essential need? The money we allocated here, I think, we always need to remember is not our money, it is not the government’s money, it’s the hard-paying taxpayers’ money.”

During testimony before the subcommittee, OETA’s state funding was measured against other states. However, John McCarroll, executive director of OETA, said that it was not a fair comparison, since many of the other states’ public television networks do not have a legislative mandate to be a statewide network.

“It’s apples and oranges, or grapes and grapefruit,” McCarroll said.

When compared to other state public television stations that do have such a mandate, OETA is near the bottom in how much it costs each citizen, behind only Idaho, McCarroll said. The funding for OETA amounts to about $1.02 per citizen, per year, he said.

In a media release, Osborn said private funding for OETA has decreased since 2007, but McCarroll said the figures listed as private donations presented by Osborn include $1.5 to $2 million in federal grant money that aided the network in making the digital conversion in 2007. Private funding is actually up this year, he said, increasing to prerecession levels during the August fund drive.

OETA has been a favored place to cut in an attempt to remedy the state’s budget woes, McCarroll said. He said the agency has had a 26 percent cut in its state funds over the past four years.

These reductions have resulted in large cutbacks in the network, including scaling down news staff and the nightly newscast to one night a week, McCarroll said, while still trying to maintain the quality of programming.

‘Censoring’ Content
During the hearing, Rep. Charles Ortega, R-Altus, questioned whether it was appropriate to use state funds to pay for a network that airs programs “that (show) we developed from monkeys, apes, or whatever, and we came down off the trees and those that were left behind were just left behind. Who determines that, and how can we justify state dollars for that type of program?” McCarroll said the programming is selected by OETA and that it would be inappropriate not to air a program that the majority of viewers might want to see because others may disagree with it.

“We don’t want to run a program because it might be what some people don’t believe. We don’t want to deprive the other 99 percent of it,” McCarroll told Oklahoma Gazette. “It would be censoring a program if we were to say, ‘We’re not going to run that because it’s about evolution or whatever.’”

right, Rep. Leslie Osborn

Rep. Sally Kern, R-Oklahoma City, told McCarroll during the hearing that she had heard from several people and witnessed herself that OETA’s news report was “very left-leaning,” and asked whether the station, since it receives public funds, should be a little more “fair and balanced.”

McCarroll said he and the news director at the station adhere to the highest journalistic standards and asked for examples of a left-leaning bias.

“I think we can get you some examples,” Kern said.

As of Nov. 9, McCarroll told the Gazette that Kern had not yet provided him with any examples.

OETA also has a private foundation, which is where donations from viewers go, called the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority Foundation. It pays much of the station’s dues, broadcast fees and programming charges from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

The foundation’s latest tax forms from 2009 show it had $33 million in funds, but that number has since dropped to around $20 million, McCarroll said, and those funds are restricted for specific uses, while state funds go toward operations. If OETA were to rely solely on those funds, it would be broke within a couple of years, he said.

McCarroll said a core function of government is education.

“We feel like OETA is in the education business,” McCarroll said. “We have teachers, we have homeschoolers, we have GED teachers who depend on that programming and also lifelong learners. People who are older and want to learn about nature or science or the arts, and the only place you’re going to do that is on OETA.”

With positive growth forecasts and increasing tax collections by the state, McCarroll said he was hopeful for increased OETA funding in the next budget, but felt there were other forces at work other than just concern for the budget.

“If it’s about the economy, that’s one thing; but if it’s about ideology, that’s another thing. This is really not about the economy because if the economy picks up, we’re going to get more money, but the ideology says we shouldn’t,” McCarroll said. “If it’s truly about the economy, let’s all suffer during the bad times, and let’s all prosper during the good times. This whole conversation wouldn’t even be necessary if that were true, but I suspect there’s more going on than just the economics of it.”

McCarroll said he’s seen public support for OETA, which televises Elmo on “Sesame Street.”

“I’m just really gratified that people understand the value of OETA,” he said. “It’s been around for 50-plus years, and they don’t want to see it cut."

John McCarroll photo by Shannon Cornman

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11.16.2011 at 12:29 Reply

How about instead of CUTTING money from PROVEN education programing (that may be the only preschool education for rural or poor children) we tax thoes who aren't paying any. I pay taxes and OETA is EXACTLY the kind of thing I want my money going to. I would pay EXTRA to save educational programming like that.


11.19.2011 at 01:54 Reply

I am 58 and still learn from the programs I watch on OETA. My kids grew up with Sesame Street and Electric Company.  We were neither so poor that we qualified for headstart, nor so wealthy that we could afford private preschool, so OETA and the kids shows helped my kids get ready for school like the previous writer stated.  OETA provides many educational opportunites that people without natGeo, TLC, Discovery, History, A and E and Science Channels will never have. I have contributed to the foundation and would also pay more than my fair share to keep it around.


James From Ada