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The necessity of Public Broadcasting March 4, 2006

Posted by Matt Hurst in Uncategorized.
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A couple weeks ago, when congress turned in it’s proposed budget fiscal year 2006, cuts of more than $150 million dollars were proposed for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (a kind of shield of funding for NPR and PBS). My initial reaction of course was “CPB has more than $150 million to spend?!?!?!?”. Then I realized it was time to support my local station, just in time for the annual fund drive. Of course all the while I had this essay from mid-2004 in tow for just such special occasions, and I’d like to share my contribution to public broadcasting –


In 1969 the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (also known as the CPB) created a new private, non-profit, television network corporation to organize public television stations on a national level, dubbing the system PBS. Owned by the local television stations it provides distribution services to, PBS sets initiatives and provides the contents of public television nationally. Although originally incorporating its funding for operational and production costs from federal, state, and local governments through the CPB, PBS draws its basic operational costs primarily from its contributing members (or as the tag line suggests “Viewers like You”). These cutbacks in funding appropriations and a slowly declining viewing audience has raised many questions about the need for and role of public television in American society.
PBS, through the CPB, has created categories of television programming to provide service to its communities that network television has not. Providing its “Ready to Learn” program to prepare children for educational development and its Adult Learning Service such as its GED programming, PBS has made a name for itself as a leader in children’s and educational programming. Cutbacks on government funding of pubic television (as well as public broadcast) have drawn PBS, once known for its shunning of corporate interest in favor of autonomy in public service, to seek corporate underwriting and marketable productions. PBS provides for a fundamental and necessary public service that requires public funding to continue providing service and create further programming that will serve the public’s interest.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting created and maintains PBS as the distributor of programming and an organizing body for public television stations, from which it can provide media serving the public’s programming needs and interests. Its flagship service of children’s programming, centered around the education of pre-school and student children, is regularly viewed by 88% of America’s children. Promoting distribution of such popular shows as “Sesame Street”, “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood”, “Arthur”, and “Reading Rainbow”, PBS has established itself as the leading provider of educational children’s programming and is the #1 television resource for classrooms nationally according to a Cable in The Classroom survey. Its Adult Learning Service “provides college credit TV courses to nearly 500,000 students each academic year” with the cooperation of local stations and colleges to encourage adults to earn their GEDs. PBS also promotes and distributes programming (obtained through the purchase of content produced by member stations, independent productions, and international sources such as the BBC) towards the public interest in news (“BBC Worldnews”, “Newshour with Jim Lehrer”), public affairs (“Frontline”), cultural (primarily music and arts), history (such as Ken Burns’ documentaries), and the sciences (“NOVA”). It’s public service programming has garnered critical acclaim; PBS earned 10 daytime Emmys (the most prestigious television award) for its children’s programming, 14 Emmys for its news and documentary programs, and 8 George Foster Peabody Awards (the premier journalism award). As PBS’s current motto might suggest: “If we don’t do it, who will?”
While PBS services programming for public service, its funding is provided primarily from its contributing members (remember “Viewers like you”), and is increasingly funded by businesses instead of state and federal governments. PBS stations require a $1.6 billion operating budget, dwarfed in comparison to the $4+ billion budget of the BBC (another public broadcasting network in the United Kingdom), which is raised primarily by member station’s communities. The national network itself projects a budget of $311.7 million for operating costs for 2003-04, $158.4 million coming from member station while incorporating $58.7 million (or 16.4% of station funding) from government sources (including the CPB). The rest of costs have been made up by an increasing share of business funding, comprising 16.1% of station income, with the remaining funds generated by licensing acquisitions (toys and video markets). This sponsorship of PBS programming by business, which it calls underwriting, results in the motivated promotion of “safe programming” that skews public service according to Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting executive director Jerold M Starr. Starr, a professor of sociology at West Virginia University, goes further to suggest that “Corporations are not big risk-takers when there’s perceived controversy” in PBS news programming and that public funding is necessary to provide the network with objective, non-commercial interests in its programming to best serve the public and maintain its interest.
Many in opposition to public broadcasting suggest that there is no continuing need for PBS and public television programming in that it no longer needs serves the public and interest. With the advent of cable television programming, many networks have become distributors of content similar to that PBS, including the Discovery network (Discovery Channel, TLC, etc.), the History channel, A&E, and Nickelodeon (Nick Jr., Noggin). Those opposed to public funding of public television cite the services provided these alternative networks as one garnering higher public interest. Nielson Ratings compare a .3 decrease in ratings with a 3 share for public television to a 5.2 ratings increase with a 48 share (an increase of 7 share as well) for cable programming during the same period of 1999/2000. News programming is also popular in cable television, which unlike PBS uses ad-supported telecasting. Many conservative groups have criticized the objectivity of public television news shows like that of “Now with Bill Moyers”, who criticized the Bush administration in February of 2002 as having “hijacked” the American flag and turned it into a monopoly on Patriotism. The CPB went on to state following the controversy that it had not supported the creation of the show, and it’s head Mr. Coonrod described the newsmagazine show as no “sufficiently unique”, which would be in conflict with the purposes of an unbiased organization created to fund content not found in competing media broadcasts. These groups would argue that if public service is provided by other media networks that interest the public more, than government funding is not necessary to support public television.

(the remainder has mysteriously disappeared)

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