What is the future for the Public Broadcasting Service in the USA?
Compiled by María Teresa Aveggio, Programme Manager, Communication Rights Programme, WACC
| || || |
Almost a month ago the US House of Representatives voted to eliminate funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the institution responsible for distributing federal funds that support over a thousand local public broadcasting stations.
Created by the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act, the CPB is a non-profit corporation funded by the US Federal Government to promote public broadcasting in the country. By 1969 the CPB started what is now known as the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). A year later, the CPB formed the National Public Radio (NPR) a network of public radio stations across the country.
|Image source: VoxPublica|| || |
The CPB distributes its federal funds in accordance with a statutory formula contained in the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. CPB funding is particularly important to minority-owned public stations and stations in rural areas, which are more challenging to operate due to low population density of viewers and listeners; the need to operate multiple transmitters to reach far-flung populations; and the limited disposable incomes and potential for private support often found in rural America.
PBS is the most prominent provider of programming to US public television stations. Since the mid 2000s, Roper polls commissioned by PBS have consistently placed the service as USA’s most trusted institution (PBS February 13 2009. PBS#1 in public trust for the sixth consecutive year, according to a national Roper survey http://www.pbs.org/aboutpbs/news/20090213_pbsropersurvey.html ).
Unlike the model of US commercial television networks, in which affiliates give up portions of their local advertising airtime in exchange for network programming, PBS member stations pay substantial fees for the shows acquired and distributed by the national organisation. This means that PBS member’s stations have greater latitude in local scheduling than their commercial counterparts.
PBS stations are usually operated by non-profit organisations, state agencies, local authorities or universities. In some cases, PBS stations in different states may be organised into a single regional ‘sub-network’ (e.g. Alabama Public Television). Unlike its radio counterpart, the USA’s National Public Radio, PBS has no central programme production arm or news department and all of the programming carried is created by other parties.
Since 1990, PBS funds the Independent Television Service and five minority programme consortia which represent African American, Latino, Asian American, Native American and Pacific Islander producers as well as many other independent productions.
According to the electronic publication The Root (http://www.theroot.com), the cuts are more than Big Bird and Elmo, two popular characters in the now world famous Sesame Street series. Eric Easter, a board member of the National Black Programming Consortium, argues that public broadcasting in the USA is ‘our best hope for telling our own stories’. Under the title ‘Your Take: Why Black America Should Fight for Public Media’ Easter argues that the hardest hit victims of the cuts to PBS or NPR will be the people on the ground and that public media could be Black Americans’ most promising frontier for distribution of serious, non-commercial content.(http://www.theroot.com/views/your-take-why-black-america-should-fight-public-media)
According to Easter, the National Black Programming Consortium (and its partner organizations) has provided critical funding for important and innovative documentaries. These organisations have also taken the lead in bringing digital literacy and training to underserved communities throughout the USA. Public media, he affirms, is a ‘potential power, that, if harnessed can do wonders for educating and informing black and other minority communities and for telling stories that never get told. If the funding goes, however, so does that potential.’
Ken Burns writing in The Washing Post (February 27, 2011) affirms that the cuts threaten the ‘cultural, educational, informational and civilizing influences that help equip us for enlightened citizenship’. He adds that ‘with minimal funding, PBS manages to produce essential (commercial-free) children’s programming as well as the best science and nature, arts and performance, and public affairs and history programming on the dial – often a stark contrast to superficial, repetitive and mind-numbing programming elsewhere.’
Since 70% of public broadcasting funds are channelled to local stations, other media analysts are also concerned for the impact of the cuts to small television and radio stations serving rural areas in many states. (http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/02/21/MN3T1HOIP4.DTL)
It is hard to assess the damage to US media plurality and diversity if the cuts voted by the House of Representatives are agreed by the US Senate. But, according to the columnist Ken Burns, public broadcasting services are not ‘unaffordable luxuries’ when the country has ‘never needed them more.’
Robert W. McChesney, writing in the latest issue of WACC’s journal Media Development, agrees. He argues that it is only in “genuinely decently funded community and independent media not under the thumb of states [that] we might begin to see the contours of something truly revolutionary: a genuinely democratic public sphere. (Creating new independent news media http://www.waccglobal.org/images/stories/media_development/2010-4/mcchesney.pdf )
On the other side of the Atlantic, the role of public service broadcasting in a democratic and pluralistic society has also been the subject of debate since massive cuts were announced in January 2011 to the BBC World Service, the international arm of the UK’s public service broadcasting.
The BBC World Service, the world’s largest international broadcaster, is funded by grant-in aid through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the British Government. With an estimated average weekly audience of 188 million people around the world and broadcasts in 32 different languages, the funding cuts have resulted in the immediate closure of five full language services, the end of radio programmes in seven languages (focusing those services on online and new media content and distribution), and a phased reduction from most short wave and medium wave distribution of remaining radio services.
With massive funding cuts in public service broadcasting both in the USA and UK, the dream of a genuinely democratic international public media sphere seems one step further away.