(First published January 2009 in Stay Thirsty)
The annual appropriation from the Federal government to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) is in excess of $400 million. There are over 1,100 public radio and television stations in the United States. The original purpose of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 was summarized by President Lyndon Johnson when he signed the Act into law:
“Finally–and most important–it builds a new institution: the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The Corporation will assist stations and producers who aim for the best in broadcasting good music, in broadcasting exciting plays, and in broadcasting reports on the whole fascinating range of human activity. It will try to prove that what educates can also be exciting. It will get part of its support from our Government. But it will be carefully guarded from Government or from party control. It will be free, and it will be independent–and it will belong to all of our people. Television is still a young invention. But we have learned already that it has immense–even revolutionary–power to change, to change our lives.”
What began with a noble purpose in the early days of electronic communication has become a poster child for government duplication. With the explosion of the internet, cable and satellite distribution of programs, cable access channels, internet television and radio sites, webcam broadcasts, Hulu and YouTube, the need for 1,100 local public radio and television stations to principally rebroadcast national programming is no longer present.
There is no doubt that PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) and NPR (National Public Radio) produce superb content at the national level. There is also no doubt that local public broadcasting stations with 24/7/365 agendas produce content that often achieves little or no audience and frequently duplicates local programming done by commercial network affiliates.
With so many opportunities today to consume information or entertainment via electronic media, it is content that rules. People respond to content. There is no brand loyalty to a network or a station. If the content is great, the audience will assemble. If the content is unappealing, people will change the channel. The need to develop and produce new and fresh content is the key to serving the public. A station can have the latest equipment and the finest staff, but if the content created has no audience, the funds to support that enterprise are wasted.
The time has come to stop the duplication and inefficiency entrenched in the public broadcasting system. If Congress reduced the CPB appropriation from $400 million to $80 million and required the funding be used to support only one national PBS television station and one national NPR radio station, the nation would save $320 million. These two stations could easily be broadcast and distributed free of charge via satellite through a myriad of cable, satellite and internet outlets. If any of the 1,100 local public stations want to continue as freestanding media enterprises or consolidate into one station per state, the economic burden to make ends meet should fall on the state and the local communities where the stations reside.
In 1967, Lyndon Johnson’s public broadcast initiatives were bold and far-reaching. In 2009, they are administered in an antiquated and wasteful fashion. Time and the economy have passed the old business model of public broadcast by. With one spectacular national PBS station and one extraordinary NPR station, funding for the expansion of content should come from the public via a national pledge drive. Now is the time to focus on the creation of great content rather than the acquisition or support of more infrastructure. Today’s harsh economic climate transmits a very clear message – public broadcasting must change or be prepared to Rest In Peace.