Do we need publicly funded broadcasting? Is it a luxury rather than a necessity, given the explosion of information on the internet? Is it a cash drain we can’t afford in this age of austerity? Is it an idea whose time has gone?
This blogpost is published with graphics on the BBC College of Journalism website.
Put these questions to a Republican member of the United States Congress and the answers might well sound shocking to BBC ears. Last month, members of the Republican-dominated House of Representatives voted to eliminate all federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (PBS) from 2013.
On 9 March, the Senate threw back the House’s budget bill. But House Majority leader Eric Cantor is still vowing to press on with the plan to cut public broadcast funding. It might not be an imminent threat but the ‘defunding’ is a popular conservative cause in the United States.
You could say it’s a cause that’s more symbolic than substantial. It doesn’t mean pulling the plug on the PBS network of television stations – many of which carry BBC World News bulletins across the United States. It doesn’t mean the closure of the NPR radio stations which have for years rebroadcast BBC World Service radio programmes to millions of appreciative US citizens.
In fact, ‘public broadcasting’ in the States has long had only a fraction of its budget met directly by central government funds. It’s more a question of ‘seed money’ than taxpayers covering costs.
Take my breakfast listening to Boston broadcasters WBUR and WGBH. Federal dollars account for just 6% and 8% of funding for these stations. Which is why listeners like me learn to live with ‘the subscription drive’ – endless appeals to phone in and pay up to keep your station on the air. I was driven mad over Valentine’s Day weekend as WBUR’s newscasters repeatedly broke into World Service radio accounts of turmoil in North Africa to urge us to buy roses.
And to get my fix of Downton Abbey, rebroadcast on PBS last month, I had to wait for the long opening credits to thank the programme’s sponsors and “viewers like you” for making the necessary donations. The humiliating appeals for cash have even become a YouTube comedy staple, thanks to this season’s inspired advertisement starring Alec Baldwin.
In communities like mine, there is private cash for ‘public’ stations. As the Boston Globe newspaper columnist Alex Beam put it recently:
“Boston is a honeymoon hotel of public broadcasting love, with loyal and well-heeled audiences; it would be a stretch to say the stations here are desperate for congressional megabucks.”
The US simply has a different way of sustaining the arts; one that relies heavily on the philanthropy of wealthy individuals and the generosity of the foundations they endow. The tax system is framed to facilitate such generosity. The assumption is that if you’re rich you make donations – to museums, to the ballet, to galleries, and even to journalists like us.
So, federal funding or not, some of the stations defined as ‘public broadcasters’ will continue to exist.
But some could go to the wall. That was the message from the campaign ‘170 million Americans for Public Broadcasting’. Here are the statistics laid out on the campaign website: 170 million Americans connect through 368 public television stations, 934 public radio stations and hundreds of online services.
‘170 million Americans’ says that the people who most need these programmes will be hardest hit if the federal funding crumbles. It’s the smallest stations – many in remote rural areas; many offering the single local source of international news – which need the highest proportion of government subsidy to stay on the air.
Is there a case for continuing taxpayer funding to serve audiences like these? If so, then the fight over federal dollars for US public broadcasters is worthwhile. The campaign has lived to fight another day. But the battle isn’t over.