Monday, January 02, 2006

Is there a need for public broadcasting in the mega channel world?

Is there a future for public broadcasting in the U.S.? Last month a blue ribbon panel headed by former Netscape CEO James Barksdale and former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt took a stab at addressing this in a report, “Digital Future Initiative: Challenges and Opportunities for Public Service Media in the Digital Age.”

As the title indicates, there are no dearth of challenges for public broadcasting. In the Foreword they write: “Our nation’s media marketplace is becoming increasingly fragmented and on-demand…. If today’s public broadcasters can successfully adapt to this new environment, the potential for enhanced public service through digital media is vast…”

The report is a fine inventory of needs. But it fails to ask what should have been the initial premise: Is there a need for a publicly funded media entity today?

Timothy Karr, though a supporter of publicly funded media through the self-styled media reform advocacy group Free Press, has been quoted as agreeing that “PBS has a problem supporting programs that are competitive in today's commercial market.” Then why the need, with all continuing political controversy that has accompanied publicly funded media?

The report goes on to identify areas they believe could sustain a need for public service media (expanded from the original 1967 legislation of Public Broadcasting). Much of the report centers on educational needs. “Emerging digital media technologies hold great potential as educational tools,” the authors tell us. But after identifying the sorry state of education today, they add “We believe that in the digital future, all Americans should continue to be able to depend on public broadcasters to furnish them with the reliable, unbiased information they need in the course of their lives.

Sure there are educational needs, but there are local state and federal programs to address these needs. Yes, the public needs reliable and unbiased information, but has that been provided by public broadcasting? And more to the point, are there mechanisms for the public to get the information they want and need without it going through a publicly funded enterprise?

The question at hand: in today’s highly competitive, multichannel world, is there a need for publicly funded media, particularly TV? The historical argument for publicly funded media has been that there were few channels for TV. Commercial broadcasters would not tackle hard issues, controversial topics, or quality children’s programming.

This must be balanced against policy issues of real or imagined political pressure, real or imagined content biases, and the actual cost—from taxes or tax-like fees.

The money is not really the issue. All told in 2003 public broadcasting had revenue of $2.3 billion. Federal appropriations for public broadcasting is about $400 million, which account for only about 16% of the total budget. The rest comes from foundations (7%), business underwriting (15%), state governments (14%) and a smattering of university, local government and contracts.

The question is really about priorities and feasibility. What can public media bring to the party that is not now being provided by the History Channel, the Biography Channel, the Discovery Channel and the like, not to mention the bottomless pit of content—much available for the taking—via the Internet?

Indeed, the very audience that these taxes and foundation dollars goes to support is the audience that can most afford cable subscriptions, broadband connections, DVD rentals and purchases as well as being most likely to have the skills needed to find the information they want. Public media’s core constituency, as described by the public broadcasters’ own promotions are “affluent, influential, educated, discerning, and diverse. They are the decision makers and opinion leaders…” Central Michigan Public Television claims that its audience penetration “runs deeper into upscale households than any other medium. According to surveys conducted by Roper Reports, public television viewers have high incomes and are likely to have invested in stocks, bonds and mutual funds.”

The “Digital Future” report may have started from the wrong base. If they need to work so hard at finding a role, then maybe it is time for public broadcasting to sunset itself. Indeed, the Digital Future panel could have started out with this point of view: If a public media organization did not exist today, what are the compelling arguments that would rally the public to support the creation of such a service?

If public television disappeared tomorrow in the US, mostly a small elite would notice. Today, unlike 20 or even 10 years ago, there are alternative structures to a public media organization if there is a constituency for some type of content or service that doesn’t now exist. The best of what PBS provides will be quickly picked up by existing or new channels, sites or whatever. “Sesame Street” would not evaporate nor need to hawk sugared cereal to survive. Democracy would not be threatened. Civic discourse would not see a ripple.

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