Do We Really Need Public Broadcasting?

Media is one of the most significant forces of the 21st century.  From radio to television to newspapers to movies to magazines to the blogosphere, the average person spends a great deal of time being influenced by the media — particularly the electronic media.  Television, radio and other forms of electronic media fall into two types — public broadcasting and commercial broadcasting.  Public broadcasting is paid for through taxes (hence the term “public”), donations from individuals, and the occasional corporate sponsorship resulting in some advertisement.  Commercial broadcasting is a competitive, capitalistic enterprise paid for by corporations trying to make a profit (predominantly through advertising).

All over the world, public broadcasting was once the only game in town.  In some countries, it still is (most of them run by power-hungry dictators who want to control the flow of information, such as North Korea or Cuba).  But in almost the entire civilized world, commerical broadcasting now plays a significant (if not dominant) role in the world of electronic media.

In America, there are two dominant public outfits left, the Public Broadcasting Service (or PBS) on the television side and National Public Radio (NPR) on the radio side.  One could argue that the Internet is the latest greatest version of publicly-funded media, but that’s another discussion for another time.  Clearly not the same thing, at least.

PBS

PBS originated from the National Eductation Television network, started in the early 50’s to help local producers in “exchanging and distributing educational programs”.  After the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PBS was founded in its current form in 1969, and began broadcasting on October 5, 1970.  A few years later, it absorbed all the educational function of its predecessor.  Now, PBS has approximately 350 member TV stations.

NPR

NPR is the radio equivalent of PBS.  Also a result of the 1967 legislation, NPR was founded on February 26, 1970 to “produce and distribute news and cultural programming”.  NPR has two competitors, the American Broadcasting Network and Public Radio International.  ABN is much smaller, and PRI is actually the largest public outfit in the country.  In fact, much of PRI’s programming is attributed to NPR, and many people do not realize that they are competitors.  In a Harris poll conducted in 2005, NPR was voted the most trusted news source in the US.  Between them, these three organizations bring publicly-funded radio to more than 1,000 radio outlets.

What’s my point?

No, this is not an educational piece on public broadcasting.  My basic thought is that we don’t really need public broadcasting.  I think, if it were up to me, that we would simply eliminate it.  Harsh?  Why?

Well, first of all, it’s unnecessary.  Public broadcasting was created in a time when there weren’t satelite dishes on 3 out of 4 homes, 750 cable stations, and ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX in every house.  Is PBS really that important anymore?  With everything from XM / Syrius radio in the car to so many FM stations in Chicagoland that I can’t find a good spot to which to tune my iPod DLO, don’t you think we could get by without NPR?

Now, if these were commercial outfits, fighting the same survival-of-the-fittest battle that all these other deals I just mentioned were, then I would say leave them alone.  But my problem with them is that they’re funded with money that could go elsewhere.

Public broadcasting in the US is predominantly funded by three things:  dues of member stations, direct government funding, and charitable contribution (from individuals, foundations and the occasional corporation).  And this is a bit misleading since many of the member stations are also funded by government grants, etc.  So, alot of times, the “dues” are just indirect tax money.

Both the government subsidy direct to PBS or NPR and the round-about dues money funded to the member stations come from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.  This company’s budget in 2006 was just about $500M dollars.  Half a billion.  Proposals are on the table for severe cuts in this budget in 2007 (like 23%), but of course they are being fought tooth and nail.

My question is why?  In a capitalistic society like ours, why should the taxpaper be funding something so unnecessary, when all around it there are a dozen examples of equivalent (or even superior) outfits who don’t get a dime from the public till and survive just fine.  Isn’t it a bit socialist to keep subsidizing these groups?

And on the charitable giving side, couldn’t that money be better used elsewhere?  When the late Ray Kroc’s (founder of McDonnald’s) wife Joan died in 2003, she left NPR $225M from their estate.  And that’s not the first such gift!  First of all, it’s amazing that even with this kind of giving, these deals aren’t self-sufficient, and still require our tax money.  Second of all, it seems unfortunate to me that Ms Kroc’s money couldn’t have gone to cancer or AIDS research … or something that was actually deeply needed.  Obviously, Ms Kroc can leave her money to whomever she likes.  It just doesn’t feel like an unnecessary psuedo-socialistic service like NPR is a great place for such generous giving.

So that’s the scoop. We don’t really need it and it undermines capitalism, so let’s get rid of it and spend the money somewhere else.

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About Jeff Block

Lover and follower of Christ. Husband and father. Writer and seminary student. On a long journey, learning to swim with the current of God's love and walk with Him in the garden in the cool of the day.
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10 Responses to Do We Really Need Public Broadcasting?

  1. Brad Bull says:

    NEA, PBS, NPR, etc. provide culture and art free from corporate corruption. Surely in a coutry as wealthy as ours we can afford a few pennies for cultural benefit.
    Public Broadcasting $500,000,000
    U.S. military $560,000,000,000 not including supplamental appropriations estimated at $100,000,000,000

    We are talking about 0.02% of the U.S. Federal budget.

    It is also important to mention that our public broadcasting institutions strive to avoid any political manipulation and are therefore not comparable to N. Korea, Cuba, etc.

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  2. Jeff Block says:

    Yes, you’re right. I feel there’s no difference between our public broadcasting is the same as North Korea’s. I’ve been exposed.

    What conceivable frame of reference makes you think that’s what I meant?

    Re: cost…

    I know the public radio budget is breaking the back of the American economy. This also isn’t the point. The point is that there’s no need for it anymore. We should allow capitalism to work, and use the money elsewhere.

    Besides, $500M is still $500M, right? Just because spending is out of control in other areas, making this number feel small, doesn’t mean that we should keep spending it. Does it?

    And what does military spending have to do with ANYTHING that I’m discussing here? Is this your way of saying that we spend too much money on the military? We are at war after all. And even though I wish we weren’t spending as much money as we are (in general — as I stated in a previous post), that’s not really the topic at hand is it?

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  3. Brad Bull says:

    RE: N. Korea,
    OOPs. I misread your original post. I thought you were implying that Public broadcasting might be politically influenced, but I realize you didn’t state that.

    Yes, I do feel the government supporting and encouraging culture in the way they do with public broadcasting is a worthwhile use of my tax dollars. Much more so than many other expenses actually. I can also speak from experience that in many rural areas NPR is about the only news radio you can get (not having satellite radio)

    And another yes, I do feel our military budget is out of control. If we limited our military budget to only 3X the next highest country we could easily balance our budget.

    My point of comparison to the military budget was to emphasize how small this amount is. Yes, 500M is still 500M, and I feel it is a relevant and justified expense.

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  4. David says:

    Jeff,

    It is true what Brad says. You would be surprised at the few radio/tv stations people get way out in the boondocks. There are many folk that cannot afford the directTV or XM radio stuff so thus they depend on the airwaves. I know when i lived up at camp I got 2-3 TV stations, the radio was better but my good friend only listend to CBC (Candaian Broadcasting Corporation).

    It is a good source of news and education for people that are less fortunate than us as well. I am torn though since I want a government that interferes with our lives as little as possible. I for one would not miss PBS or NPR if it was gone, but I don’t know if that would be a good choice for the nation. On the other hand I would be for canceling this and modifying/canceling other social services and applying it to our debt right away. But I don’t want to draw this into a big national debt thread.

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  5. Neva says:

    I’m going to have to incredibly vehemently disagree with Jeff on this one. I’d be one of those people who get the majority of my news from NPR, and I think that it is incredibly important for public broadcasting to exist to have a forum for transmitting information that isn’t part of the corportate, capitalistic mainstream.
    Why do I think this is important?
    At the most trivial level, I really enjoy being able to listen to news and talk radio without commercials. Not just because I find radio commercials annoying (which I very much do) but also because I believe that not taking time for commercials allows time for more content.
    For some more serious reasons, I would have to say that it’s about trusting the reliability of the news I’m getting. When news outlets are commercial, they become all about ratings and sensationalism. They show whatever will draw in the most people to their channel as opposed to the hundreds of others now available through cable, satelite, etc. Just look at a few ads for your local nightly news to prove this; brutal killings, hints of health scares, promises of corruption revealed. In short, when it’s commercialized and competitive, news becomes entertainment. And, in my opinion, it also becomes much less informative and useful to me.
    Another thing that I find to be an advantage of public broadcasting as opposed to commercial broadcasting is the idea of the funding source and who that makes the station beholden to, for lack of a better way to put it. Commercial radio/television is all about bringing in a profit, and I think that quite often content and quality suffers in the interest of putting out cheaper product to make more money and keep the shareholders happy. Public radio and television are not under and obligation to make a profit and are not beholden to shareholders. They’re supported by donations and taxpayer dollars and as such are responsible to the general public, not pursuit of money. Perhaps it makes me a bad capitalist (which I’m okay with as I’ve never claimed to be a particularly good one), but I find this situation vastly preferable.
    So, in summary, yes, I very much feel that we still need public broadcasting because it offers some very clear benefits and because I don’t think I’d have any source of news I trusted without it.

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  6. Neva says:

    In looking at your post again, Jeff, I found myself struck with a nagging question. Why do you end with “It undermines capitalism” as if this in itself should be a sufficient reason to condemn something? I don’t mean to be argumentative; I simply don’t understand. The answer would probably come down to a complete philosophical difference between us and is likely to massively derail this thread if we start discussing it here, but I would like to know what you mean by this or if I’m misinterpretting your statement. If I can follow Brad’s earlier lead in requesting a topic for future blogging, if this is something you think we might benefit from discussing, I’d be interested in seeing a separate post on this topic. As with some other things that have come up, I may still not agree, but I think it’s important to try and have a rational discussion and try to actually understand a person’s viewpoint, even when you don’t agree with their conclusions.

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  7. Jeff Block says:

    “Undermine” is too strong a word, looking back on it. What I was saying is that it doesn’t make any sense to me why – in a capitalistic society – we wouldn’t allow PBS or NPR to compete with everyone else on the same playing field. However, I am intriqued by your (very legitimate) arguments against allowing advertising revenue to be such a driving force in yet another venue. I’m still thinking about that, which is why I haven’t responded to your earlier comments.

    I think the overly-strong term “undermine” comes from my personal fear of socialism. I see a number of elements of our society tending socialistic, and that really freaks me out. In the same way that I don’t want to end up at the end of an “unrestricted capitalism” road, I certainly don’t want us to become any more socialistic (or God forbid communistic).

    You’re right; this would make a great future topic. I’ll try to address it soon.

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  8. wmersy says:

    i am wondering if, since npr and pbs seem to be run by such conscientious idealistic types, these stations might be able to incorporate some more advertising and thus capitalistic influences into their game… it shouldnt be, and probably couldnt/wouldnt be with these types, blind lowest common denominator capitalism… this way they are producing some good content and advertising for this content in other media some (to bring in more viewers) and getting advertisment dollars for conscientious educational media… this would lessen drive for taxes and personal contribution… One of biggest things with npr and pbs is guilt that can be felt by perhaps lesser income non-“supporters” for even watching or listening when there is so much clammering for donations… I just think intelligent morally developed people can make wise choices with these issues… money not as only motivator but yes some limited advertisement (which is already the case but in my opinion could be expanded a little more)… Maybe keep it a non-profit but yes allow more screened advertisement.. Hopefully this could be done while not corrupting news etc…

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  9. droo7 says:

    There is no rhyme or reason why taxpayers should subsidize NPR and PBS. It’s pure pork. They’re both agenda driven — leftist agenda driven. They’re biased and narrow minded; they do not present themselves from a balanced perspective. Jeff Block is absolutely right in his statements about the lack of need for these media. They masquerade as fair, but when you look at the facts pertaining to various issues, you quickly see that NPR especially does not cover the full range. They have a clear-cut agenda and it’s liberal. Snip their funding.

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  10. Pingback: Fair and Balanced? « Jeff Block’s Personal Idea Fountain

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