Death to Elmo?

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

Clifton Adcock

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