February 25, 2008

February 25, 2008 | Commentary on Internet And Technology

Public broadcasting should at last spread wings, fly

Taxpayer-funded public broadcasting has been around almost as long as "60 Minutes." No wonder it seems part of the family.

Unfortunately, the family member public broadcasting most resembles is the live-in brother-in-law who refuses to earn enough to move out of your basement and into his own apartment. For the past 40 years, American taxpayers have covered the rent.

The rationale for taxpayers to subsidize the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio is outdated. If PBS and NPR do good work -- and even critics must concede they often do -- they ought to be able to go it alone in the marketplace.

Additionally, the very need for public broadcasting has lessened considerably. Its original mission -- to provide a variety of quality educational, cultural and public affairs programs -- is now the province of dozens of specialty networks, from the Discovery Channel and the History Channel to HGTV and A&E.

When Congress enacted the law creating the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (with an initial $5 million budget in 1968), only three commercial networks dominated America's television market.

Today, consumers routinely can choose from 100 or more TV outlets. Yet outlays for public broadcasting continue to grow. Common sense says CPB should be a prime target for budget savings. Money now devoted to this diminished mission could go to problems that have worsened over the years -- to help provide tax relief, debt reduction or Social Security reform, for example.

Unfortunately, successive Congresses and presidents have failed to seize opportunities to refocus the federal government on activities and programs that matter most.

And so CPB this month asked Congress to invest $483 million from taxpayers in its television, radio and other operations in fiscal 2011 -- up from $400 million. Today's taxpayer "contribution," by the way, is double what it was 20 years ago.

President Bush proposes to cut half of the $400 million already appropriated, cut an additional $220 million slated for the next year and -- playing to overburdened taxpayers -- disallow the entire $483 million "advance" for 2011.

CPB and its "noncommercial" allies once again are deploying sympathetic op-ed writers and marshaling Big Bird, Bert, Ernie and the usual children's choir to the Capitol steps to pressure lawmakers into handing over the usual big bucks. As if "Sesame Street" and other superior programs couldn't find a TV home elsewhere in a New York minute.

For more than 25 years, conservatives have argued for privatizing CPB. They last mounted a vigorous fight in 1996, well before the explosion in high-tech media diversity that lets folks "tune in" shows from any era, using everything from laptop computers to iPods and cell phones.

Why shouldn't PBS and NPR have to compete in this fast-changing market alongside TNT or Salem Communications, MSNBC or Air America? Why shouldn't they also have to tighten their belts and rein in production and payroll costs?

Conservatives and liberals can agree that political interference in free speech -- fiction and nonfiction on the airwaves included -- is wrong. We may disagree on whether public broadcasting tilts leftward, sure, but we all understand that political interference comes attached to the public's money.

Just ask acclaimed filmmaker and PBS darling Ken Burns, certainly no conservative. Burns bowed to pressure from Congress and special interest groups to "correct" his vision in last year's celebrated World War II documentary, "The War," by adding material about Hispanic Americans.

Independence, innovation and creativity are not qualities we normally associate with big government. Liberal or conservative or in between, it should bother us that Congress and political hacks look over the shoulders of TV and radio broadcasters, wielding the heavy stick of funding threats.

PBS and NPR, respectively, supply programming and services to 355 television stations and 860 radio stations. Federal funding through CPB makes up about 16 percent of those stations' total revenues. The rest comes from local and state governments, colleges and universities, foundations, businesses and -- the biggest chunk at 26 percent -- donations from viewers or listeners.

It's true that taxpayers' dollars make up a bigger chunk of the budget at some of the smaller independent stations. Proponents argue that their survival is at stake.

Assume, then, a national consensus to continue public funding. Here's a better, cleaner way: The government simply cuts checks directly to the stations, under agreed-upon guidelines in the public interest.

To assure editorial independence, though, PBS and NPR should kick the federal budget habit and find ways to fully fund their activities through other sources. This approach would have the added benefit of making them more responsive to their audiences and less self-indulgent. They doubtless would need to streamline operations and scrub programs or activities that don't build audiences.

Public broadcasting outlets already run low-key commercials by program sponsors. Their gift shops sell everything from niche-market CDs and DVDs to stuffed animals and designer T-shirts. PBS betrays a knack for marketing whenever it loads up music specials and "premiums" for boomers during pledge week. (The taxpayer maybe should get a piece of that action.)

PBS can learn from The Learning Channel. Such competition makes the case for quality educational programming in a commercial format.

NPR is a thriving, cutting-edge media operation at a time when not many others can make the same claim. That brand, despite its curbed enthusiasm for conservative viewpoints, could attract investors and sponsors like Air America never will.

And if government were really, really out of the picture, millions of "free riders" (who may feel guilty but don't pledge) would be glad to chip in. It's what family does.

Ken McIntyre is the Marilyn and Fred Guardabassi Fellow in Media and Public Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation

About the Author

Ken McIntyre Senior Editor, The Daily Signal, and Guardabassi Fellow in Media and Public Policy
The Daily Signal

First appeared in Chattanooga Times Free Press