Public view on CPB funding: favorable but also ‘soft’

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Three polls taken last month gave majorities of 62 to 84 percent favoring CPB’s federal funding.

Then, a few days later, comes one showing the public 63 percent okaying cutbacks.

Why such a flip-flop?

“Question wording can move poll results very drastically,” replies John Brennan, polling director at the Los Angeles Times, which published the fourth poll.

In the first three polls, the questions about CPB appropriations simply asked whether the funding should be continued or eliminated or, in the case of PBS’s own commissioned poll, whether it should be increased, maintained or decreased.

The results were that:

  • 62 percent opposed eliminating the funding in the Business Week/Harris Poll,
  • 84 percent told PBS’s pollster “increase” or “maintain,” and
  • 76 percent said “continue” in the USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll.

Then came the Los Angeles Times, which put its question in a context familiar to many members of Congress: in the shadow of the federal budget deficit.  (Results of the polls are below.)

“As you know,” the Times pollsters told their sample, “there is much discussion in Washington about which programs should be cut back in order to reduce the federal budget deficit.” With this preface, the newspaper asked whether the government should cut back spending on several programs ranging from Medicare (9 percent favored cuts) to “the arts” (69 percent).

In the context of the budget deficit, nearly two-thirds said the government should cut back spending on public TV and radio.

Brennan doesn’t doubt the representativeness of his national sample; it included 1,353 people, slightly more than the other polls’ samples.

Differences in the question are “the only way you can get a poll result to change that much,” he says. “It happens more often than we pollsters would like.” And when the results swing that far from poll to poll, “what it usually indicates is that public opinion is very soft on the subject.”

In sum, the public seems favorably disposed toward spending tax money on public TV and radio, but when someone mentions the deficit, people step back and approve of cutbacks. Members of Congress are making similar noises. Many seem to have “softer” views on public broadcasting than on Social Security or the deficit.

The picture of a favorably disposed public is filled out by details of responses in the Opinion Research Corp. poll taken early in January for PBS.

Big majorities of Republicans and independents as well as Democrats, between 80 and 90 percent, favored increasing or maintaining the CPB funding.

Likewise, the bulk of respondents endorsed PBS’s political balance, program quality, informativeness, suitability for the whole family and breadth of interest.

Majorities said these following statements were “extremely accurate” or “somewhat accurate”:

  • 82 percent: “PBS is reasonably balanced in the content of its programming–neither too conservative nor too liberal.”
  • 83 percent: “PBS has a higher standard of program quality than commercial TV or cable.”
  • 92 percent: “PBS provides more educational and informative benefits to its viewers than most other television.”
  • 90 percent: “PBS is more suitable for the whole family than most other television.”
  • 76 percent: “If there were no PBS, it would be very difficult to maintain and improve the quality of television programming in the future.”
  • 91 percent: “PBS offers something for just about everone from all walks of life, regardless of education or income.”

PBS released the survey Jan. 17 in connection with President Ervin Duggan’s address at the National Press Club.

That same morning, House Speaker Newt Gingrich complained that the poll is an example of PBS using “tax money to lobby the American people to send them more tax money,” according to news reports.

Gingrich observed that the poll might have gotten a different answer if it had asked, “If your choice was to keep Head Start or keep PBS, which one would you rather spend scarce dollars on?”

Interviewed by the Washington Post, polling expert Andrew Kohut, director of the Times Mirror Center for People and the Press, objected to the PBS-commissioned poll because the “payoff question” about funding came after a series of questions about the virtues of public broadcasting.

The Business Week/Harris Poll, however, asked its CPB funding question after a series questions on government inefficiency and downsizing.

PBS was able to keep its polling cost down to about $5,000, according to PBS spokeswoman Karen Doyne, because its questions rode along with others on a multi-topic survey taken periodically by Opinion Research Corp.


The poll results

All figures in percentages

Business Week/Harris Poll, Jan. 4-8, 1995

Supporters of smaller government are proposing to eliminate some federal agencies and programs. Do you favor or oppose eliminating:

Favor Oppose Not sure
National Endowment for the Arts 43 52 5
Dept. of Housing and Urban Development 38 59 3
Corporation for Public Broadcasting 35 62 3

Opinion Research Corp. for PBS, Jan. 5-8

As far as federal funding for public television is concerned, which would you like to see Congress do in 1995?

Increase Maintain Reduce or eliminate Don’t know
Total 49 35 13 3
Republicans 42 38 18 1
Democrats 56 34 9 2
Independents 51 35 10 3


USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll, Jan. 16-18

As you may know, national public television and public radio–known as PBS and NPR–currently receive part of these funding from the federal government. In your view, should this federal funding be eliminated altogether, or should the funding be continued at some level?

Continued Eliminated No opinion
76 20 4

Los Angeles Times, Jan. 19-22

As you know, there is much discussion in Washington about which programs should be cut back in order to reduce the federal budget deficit. Do you think the government should back spending:

Yes No
on the arts? 69 25
for public television and public radio? 63 32
on food stamps for the poor? 48 45
on the environment? 27 67
on Social Security? 12 86
Sources: PBS; USA Today; Business Week, Jan. 23.
Business Week/Harris Poll got similar responses for Energy, Commerce, Transportation and Veterans Affairs departments and Small Business Administration. The Times poll got different answers on six more programs.

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