Public broadcasting can survive, and even improve, without federal subsidies
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In its formal budget proposal, the Trump administration has affirmed its previous proposal to end taxpayer support for public broadcasting. Fans of NPR and PBS can be forgiven for the belief that the end of taxpayer support will mean the end of what’s now called public media. This is simply not the case. Not only will both public radio and public broadcasting continue, they could even improve.

The public broadcasting system is not a centralized organization based in Washington and supported, in the main, by taxpayers. NPR and PBS are independently chartered non-profits, as are the system’s major production centers, such as WGBH, Boston and New York’s WNET, which provide content, ranging from Frontline to Live from Lincoln Center. So, too, are the 1000-plus local radio and television station license holders.

All have, to be sure, relied, to some extent, on the $445 million of federal funds distributed annually by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (on whose board of directors I sit). PBS, for instance, which commissions and distributes programming, gets some 15 percent of its revenue from CPB’s federal appropriation. That does not mean, however, that the system would not go on, absent such funds.

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In post-subsidy public broadcasting, the core elements of the system receive what amounts to an ongoing subsidy: non-profit status and, in the case of local stations, a valuable no-cost license. They make it possible to attract financial support from foundations and individual donors, who, along, with corporate underwriters, provide the majority of operating funds. Recently, such income has been augmented for many stations by the Federal Communications Commissions-supervised sale of underutilized broadcast spectrum, to be used by telecom firms such as Verizon and AT&T. In April, public media licensees realized some $2 billion in spectrum sale proceeds, which one major production center alone (WGBH, Boston; full disclosure, my one-time employer) realizing $200 million.

 

In addition, public broadcasting commands an exceptionally affluent listener and viewer base—making “privatization” of its support all the more plausible. NPR, in data expected to appeal to financial underwriters, boasts that some 58 percent of NPR listeners are college graduates, and that its listeners are “74 percent more likely to earn more than $100,000.” This, of course, raises the question of whether the tastes of the affluent should be subsidized by taxpayers, many of whom are not affluent—and that fundraising campaigns in a post-subsidy era could be more successful.

One caveat: children’s programming, to which much of CPB’s $73 million in direct programing grants is directed—to independent producers such as Pittsburgh’s Fred Rogers Company. “PBS Kids” commands wide popularity and likely explains a good deal of baseline public approval for public broadcasting. Such funds could logically be distributed, however, by the Department of Education, where expertise in such matters logically resides. Operating funds for remote rural stations—another emotional issue—could come from the FCC. Reserving much-reduced funding for these purposes will put an end to what has made public media so controversial: grant support for programming reflecting strong political points of view—programming which government should not be in the business of supporting.

Both national and local programming should look for private support—and has good reason to expect to find it. National series such as Frontline and Nova have loyal underwriters; their production costs can be supported, as well, by proceeds from the recent spectrum sales. Distribution of such programming will become ever-easier, as smartphones and broadband build-out make possible so-called “over the top” dissemination, direct to consumer. So, too, with NPR, whose NPR1 app already makes it possible to listen to programs without going through a local radio station.

In this context, the role of local public broadcasting licensees must change, whether or not federal subsidies continue. The bulk of the CPB appropriation takes the form of “community service grants” to local stations—which, in turn, must use much of the funding—and funds they raise locally—to pay dues to NPR and PBS for the right to air national programs. In a new era in which consumers can bypass the stations, it makes sense for local stations to keep the funds they raise themselves—and to use them to build what the nation needs today: strong producers of local content, especially local journalism. If, as the Washington Post’s motto now puts it, “democracy dies in darkness,” public broadcasters have a role to play in ensuring that won’t happen—especially at the local level.

The end of federal support for public media won’t put an end to the system. Instead, it will call for it to adapt and find its way in a new media era. Revisiting its model five decades after it was established is not too much to ask.

Howard Husock is vice president of research and publications at the Manhattan Institute. He sits on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s board of directors.


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