Acton Commentary

Give Public Broadcasting its Freedom--Now


Philanthropist Joan Kroc’s recent gift of $200 million to National Public Radio adds to the millions of dollars in tax-deductible donations from corporate underwriters and private citizens that pour into public broadcasting coffers each year. In light of the Kroc gift, and with growing evidence that public broadcasting has been almost totally commercialized, isn’t it time to wean public radio and television from the millions of dollars it receives from national, state and local governments?

The stated mission of the 1967 Public Broadcast Act, which authorized the establishment of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, is to develop “programming that will be responsive to the interests of the people.” Both PBS and NPR broadcast programming of merit, but it’s unclear as to whether such programming couldn’t find a home on such commercial broadcast alternatives as cable, satellite radio and TV, and the Internet.

As is clear from the existence of thousands of cable and broadcast television networks and radio stations, the TV and radio program production and distribution industry can be amply sustained without the intervention of government. Public broadcasting in effect sets up a competing interest to legitimate commercial broadcasters, many of them with strong ties to local communities. Would some markets lose the programming that most people associate with NPR and the Public Broadcasting System if the stations were weaned from public funds? We can’t answer that question as long as these networks and stations hold a self-designated “public” status in the market.

The existence of both PBS and NPR fly in the face of the Catholic principle of subsidiarity as outlined by Pope Pius XI in his 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno: On Reconstructing the Social Order . In brief, Pius wrote: “Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.”

According to their respective Web sites, PBS provides programming and services to 349 stations. NPR broadcasts over 730 public radio stations. Of 349 PBS stations licensed by 170 educational licensees, 87 are community organizations, 57 are colleges/universities, 20 are state authorities, and six are local educational or municipal authorities. Of $1.7 billion in total national, regional and local revenue, 18 percent comes from state governments, 18 percent comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and federal grants and contracts, and 6.5 percent from state colleges and universities.

While proclaiming their broadcast venues commercial-free, however, public radio and television administrators are being disingenuous. PBS and NPR have foregone their former rejection of advertising. Today, marketing slogans and brand messages of underwriters are enunciated clearly and frequently, and filmed or taped corporate messages are now commonplace. In addition, pledge drives have become a nightmare reality of local celebrities attempting to fill airtime with unscripted banter, and Internet pledge campaigns are on the upswing. The Detroit Free Press reports that PBS stations require more than 60 days per year for pledge drives. In 2002, for example, Detroit station WTVS broadcast a record 77 pledge days. During these pledge drives, special event programming is frequently interrupted with 15-minute or longer breaks, which often destroys the continuity and quality of the program as well as challenges the patience of the viewer or listener.

Commercialization - through tax-deductible sponsorships and underwriting - has helped PBS build significant market shares in competition with commercial outlets. The February 2003 Nielsen ratings and TRAC Media Services as reported in the Detroit Free Press (August 3) indicate that the local Detroit PBS station, WTVS, earns higher viewer ratings than commercial stations with similar programming (A&E, Discovery, Bravo, The Learning Channel, History Channel, HGTV). The difference is WTVS received $1.4 million in government funding in 2003. For public stations affiliated with a Michigan university, government funding is greater because they receive indirect state funding as well.

Public broadcasting’s violation of subsidiarity generates inefficiencies that its participation in the market would curb. It saturates respective markets, for example, with redundant programming within the same broadcast radius. In central Michigan, it is possible to listen to the NPR news program All Things Considered on up to three different radio stations. In the same area, cable television makes it possible to view PBS stations subsidized by Central Michigan University and Michigan State University. It’s doubtful that any of the major radio or television networks with which these two stations compete would find such redundancies financially feasible.

Thanks to the largesse provided by such advocates of public broadcasting as Joan Kroc, we can examine the PBS/NPR funding structure with the aim of putting its operations on a level playing field with the commercial entertainment and news business. Let those listeners, viewers and, yes, advertisers, who value public broadcasting pay their own way.