Why pub­lic TV and ra­dio don’t need sup­port from tax­pay­ers any­more.

The me­dia land­scape has changed since the Cor­po­ra­tion for Pub­lic Broad­cast­ing was char­tered, says board mem­ber Howard Hu­sock

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - outlook@wash­post.com Howard Hu­sock is vice pres­i­dent of re­search and pub­li­ca­tions at the Man­hat­tan In­sti­tute. He serves on the board of di­rec­tors of the Cor­po­ra­tion for Pub­lic Broad­cast­ing and was an Emmy-win­ning pub­lic tele­vi­sion pro­ducer at WGBH Bos­ton.

Now that Pres­i­dent Trump has un­veiled his bud­get and put pub­lic broad­cast­ers on no­tice that he plans to zero out the Cor­po­ra­tion for Pub­lic Broad­cast­ing, alarm bells have gone off. #Jus­ticeForBigBird was trend­ing on­line, and the CPB (where I sit on the board of di­rec­tors) de­fended it­self in a state­ment that read, in part: “The elim­i­na­tion of fed­eral fund­ing to CPB would ini­tially dev­as­tate and ul­ti­mately de­stroy pub­lic me­dia’s role in early child­hood ed­u­ca­tion, pub­lic safety, con­nect­ing cit­i­zens to our his­tory, and pro­mot­ing civil dis­cus­sions — all for Amer­i­cans in both ru­ral and ur­ban com­mu­ni­ties.”

This de­fense ig­nores to­day’s me­dia en­vi­ron­ment. Pub­lic me­dia now rarely of­fers any­thing that Amer­i­cans can’t get from for-profit me­dia or that can’t be sup­ported pri­vately.

The pres­i­dent’s bud­get is, as he might say, an open­ing bid. By the time a bud­get is ac­tu­ally passed, odds are that the CPB will be left stand­ing. But if Congress does make a mean­ing­ful cut to the $445 mil­lion an­nual ap­pro­pri­a­tion for pub­lic tele­vi­sion and ra­dio — even though, ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey con­ducted for PBS, 70 per­cent of Trump vot­ers don’t fa­vor elim­i­nat­ing fed­eral fund­ing for pub­lic broad­cast­ing — it will be tough for the CPB and its con­stituent net­works, PBS and NPR, to make the case that they still de­serve the money.

They’ll have a hard time ar­gu­ing that at a time of near-lim­it­less view­ing and lis­ten­ing choices — and with Big Bird al­ready mi­grated to HBO, which ac­quired “Se­same Street” — there’s still a mar­ket fail­ure: a dearth of of­fer­ings that ne­ces­si­tates a fed­eral sub­sidy. And they’ll have to ac­knowl­edge, and take steps to cor­rect, the real­ity that pub­lic broad­cast­ing ap­peals to a nar­row re­gional and so­cioe­co­nomic au­di­ence.

The Cor­po­ra­tion for Pub­lic Broad­cast­ing was es­tab­lished in 1967 “to en­cour­age pub­lic telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions ser­vices which will be re­spon­sive to the in­ter­ests of peo­ple both in par­tic­u­lar lo­cal­i­ties and through­out the United States, which will con­sti­tute an ex­pres­sion of di­ver­sity and ex­cel­lence, and which will con­sti­tute a source of al­ter­na­tive telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions ser­vices for all the cit­i­zens of the Na­tion.” In an era when tele­vi­sion was de­scribed as a “vast waste­land,” the CPB would “en­cour­age the de­vel­op­ment of pro­gram­ming that in­volves cre­ative risks and that ad­dresses the needs of un­served and un­der­served au­di­ences, par­tic­u­larly chil­dren and mi­nori­ties.”

But if that’s the mis­sion, it is now be­ing ac­com­plished else­where. For-profit me­dia pro­duce pro­gram­ming that is eth­ni­cally and ide­o­log­i­cally di­verse. Au­di­ences once con­sid­ered un­der­served — chil­dren of color, po­lit­i­cal con­ser­va­tives, devo­tees of in­de­pen­dent film or sci­ence geeks — can find what they’re look­ing for all over ra­dio and TV. Yes, pub­lic me­dia makes out­stand­ing con­tri­bu­tions, from the films of Ken Burns to the en­ter­pris­ing for­eign re­port­ing of NPR. But one can­not as­sume that ab­sent fed­eral fund­ing, there would be no sources of sup­port for “di­ver­sity and ex­cel­lence.”

Fifty years ago, after all, there was no 24hour-a-day news, pre­mium cable, satel­lite ra­dio or the In­ter­net; broad­cast was dom­i­nated by the ma­jor net­works; and ra­dio was mori­bund. To­day we live in a golden age of com­mer­cially pro­duced orig­i­nal Amer­i­can drama, com­edy, news and real­ity pro­gram­ming. Shows that fea­ture di­verse cast­ing and sto­ry­telling — from ABC’s light­hearted but thought-pro­vok­ing sit­com “Black­ish” to Net­flix’s crit­i­cally ac­claimed, hard-hit­ting “13th,” a doc­u­men­tary about “race, jus­tice and mass in­car­cer­a­tion” — can be found on a mul­ti­tude of free and pay ser­vices. Net­flix, in an­other ex­am­ple, rents the in­de­pen­dently pro­duced film “The Wise Kids,” a well-re­viewed story of a gay evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian high school stu­dent.

In the past, if view­ers wanted a TV news al­ter­na­tive to the big three net­works, the only place they could turn was PBS’s “MacNeil/Lehrer Re­port.” To­day there are the ma­jor cable news out­lets (Fox News Chan­nel, CNN, MSNBC) and their sib­lings (Fox Busi­ness Chan­nel, HLN, CNBC). There’s a pro­lif­er­a­tion of par­ti­san cable news pro­gram­ming, from right-lean­ing News­max to left-lean­ing Vice. Nearly ev­ery point of view and ev­ery type of mu­sic can be heard on Sir­iusXM satel­lite ra­dio. It was PBS that once had to be the ve­hi­cle for Ju­lia Child; to­day she’d be a sta­ple on the Food Net­work. There’s no rea­son “Down­ton Abbey” couldn’t have run on BBC Amer­ica.

All this might mat­ter less if it were clear that pub­lic me­dia was the pre­ferred choice of a broad cross-sec­tion of Amer­i­cans. This was part of the orig­i­nal mis­sion. In­stead, pub­lic me­dia to­day looks far too much like a niche pro­gram­ming ser­vice for a left-lean­ing, up­mar­ket ur­ban con­stituency.

Of the top 10 most pop­u­lar NPR af­fil­i­ates as of 2013, only one (in At­lanta) can be found in the South or the South­west. The ma­jor “pro­duc­ing sta­tions” of PBS pro­gram­ming — lo­cals that pro­vide the lion’s share of con­tent broad­cast on smaller af­fil­i­ates — are based in lib­eral bas­tions Bos­ton, New York and Wash­ing­ton. NPR, in data aimed at fi­nan­cial un­der­writ­ers, boasts that 58 per­cent of its lis­ten­ers are col­lege grad­u­ates and that its lis­ten­ers are 74 per­cent more likely than av­er­age to earn more than $100,000. (One NPR slide deck boasts that its pro­gram­ming reaches “cul­tural con­nois­seurs” who are likely to drink four glasses of wine per week.) The ap­peal makes a virtue of its elite de­mo­graph­ics, not­ing that NPR “at­tracts an au­di­ence most no­tably distin­guished by its ed­u­ca­tional ex­cel­lence and pro­fes­sional suc­cess.” In 2014, the Pew Re­search Cen­ter found that “the clear ma­jor­ity of its au­di­ence (67%) is left-of-cen­ter.” Noth­ing wrong with that, of course, un­less your statu­tory man­date is to reach and in­form the Amer­i­can cit­i­zenry broadly.

That fund­ing of pub­lic me­dia has be­come a par­ti­san is­sue sug­gests a fail­ure on its part. If there is a cov­er­age bias at work, it shows it­self in story se­lec­tion: the Dakota Ac­cess Pipe­line protests rather than the eco­nomic ben­e­fits of frack­ing, for in­stance. Ideally, pub­lic me­dia would cover th­ese evenly.

One area where pub­lic me­dia does in­creas­ingly pro­vide some­thing the mar­ket doesn’t is lo­cal news and pub­lic af­fairs pro­gram­ming. In re­cent years, more NPR sta­tions (such as New York, Bos­ton, Port­land, Los An­ge­les, Dal­las, St. Louis) have moved to a news and pub­lic af­fairs for­mat, pro­vid­ing lo­cal cov­er­age at a time when news­pa­pers are with­er­ing and the ranks of state capi­tol and city hall re­porters have been dec­i­mated. This type of cov­er­age would seem an ideal func­tion for pub­lic me­dia and a way, po­ten­tially, to reach a wider va­ri­ety of view­ers and lis­ten­ers.

It may, in­deed, be a ra­tio­nale for on­go­ing gov­ern­ment sup­port, but it could just as well point to­ward a way for pub­lic me­dia to thrive in a post-sub­sidy era. Good lo­cal pro­gram­ming helps lo­cal sta­tions — which are in­de­pen­dent, non­profit en­ti­ties — raise lo­cal money, just as na­tional pro­gram­ming at­tracts pri­vate-sec­tor un­der­writ­ing. Al­ready, ac­cord­ing to NPR, its mem­ber sta­tions rely on gov­ern­ment fund­ing for only 14 per­cent of rev­enue. The CPB dis­trib­utes “com­mu­nity ser­vice grants” to lo­cal sta­tions, but much of that money winds up be­ing re­cy­cled to PBS and NPR for the right to air na­tional pro­gram­ming. This fis­cal year, 40 per­cent of NPR’s more than $200 mil­lion in rev­enue came from lo­cal sta­tions. In 2014, PBS as­sessed mem­ber sta­tions $186 mil­lion, a large chunk of the $223 mil­lion dis­trib­uted that year in com­mu­nity ser­vice grants for lo­cal tele­vi­sion sta­tions. Money for lo­cal sta­tions, in other words, doesn’t all stay lo­cal.

If pub­lic broad­cast­ers con­tinue to re­ceive fed­eral sup­port, they must start ap­peal­ing to more than just blue-state Amer­ica. They should re­visit and ex­pand the mean­ing of di­ver­sity to in­clude more ide­o­log­i­cal and geo­graphic per­spec­tives, and be re­quired to re­port reg­u­larly to Congress on view­er­ship and lis­ten­er­ship in states and ma­jor metro ar­eas across the coun­try.

Point­ing to past suc­cess isn’t enough. Apart from the bud­get process, the pres­i­dent should use his ap­point­ment pre­rog­a­tive for the CPB’s three open board seats to steer pub­lic me­dia in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion. That will con­tinue to be my mis­sion as a board mem­ber — en­cour­ag­ing pub­lic me­dia to adapt to a new en­vi­ron­ment. Pub­lic me­dia must demon­strate that it can serve truly di­verse au­di­ences in ways the pri­vate mar­ket can’t. Oth­er­wise, the sys­tem’s bud­get will de­serve what the pres­i­dent has pro­posed.

SHAN­NON STAPLETON/REUTERS

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