by Giancarlo Rulli
The “Fiscal Cliff” and the Future of Public Television in the U.S.
If we don’t have an informed electorate we don’t have a democracy. So I don’t care how people get the information, as long as they get it. I’m just doing it my particular way and I feel lucky I can do it the way I want to do it. – Jim Lehrer
The so-called upcoming “fiscal cliff” on Capitol Hill once again has the annual government funds allotted to public television once again in the cross-heirs. Last year, the U.S. spent 430 million dollars to support the Corporation of Public Broadcasting, also known as the CPB. These funds which represented a mere .00012 percent of the 2011 federal budget, were spread across several public broadcasting platforms including PBS, NPR and other various public stations (Bingham, 2012). But that hasn’t kept PBS out of the political spotlight throughout this hotly contested election year. In the first presidential debate, Republican nominee Mitt Romney told moderator Jim Lehrer, “I’m sorry Jim, I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I like PBS, I actually love Big Bird. I like you too, but I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for.” Lehrer, a longtime newsman and host of PBS’s arguably most well known news show “Newshour,” chose not to respond to the former Massachusetts Governor’s criticism. At the time, Romney’s vice presidential pick, Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI), was also a outspoken critic of federal funding for PBS. The Wisconsin Congressman had put provisions in his controversial 2010 budget plan, “The Ryan Budget,” to strip congressional funds to the CPB.
This recent push by House Republicans to strip federal money to public media comes at a very tough time for PBS because not only is PBS under the budget microscope in Congress, but also has received less private donations in recent years. According to the CPB, “between 2008 and 2009, non-federal support of public television stations fell by $260 million nationwide. In addition, for the past several years, Congressional funding has remained relatively flat, at about $400 million a year. For 2010, public radio and TV stations surveyed by CPB projected a 14 percent drop in revenue, due to state cutbacks and declines in corporate and philanthropic support and viewer pledges.” So the question arises, is public television worth the money?
According to the vast majority of Americans, the answer is yes. In fact, 74 percent of American’s feel that the money PBS receives from the government, corporations, and individuals is well spent. According to a study published this February by Harris Interactive Trust QuickQuerry, PBS ranks number one in public trust at 26 percent. That far surpasses the second place finisher, the U.S. judicial system, which ranks at just 13 percent. The obvious next question arises, why do Americans feel they are receiving trustworthy news and information from their national and locally affiliated PBS stations? The prestigious Columbia Journalism Review stated that PBS and public media are, “held up as the potential savior of serious journalism, the place with the potential to tackle the tough topics—complicated revolutions in Arab lands and zoning board shenanigans alike—that an informed citizenry needs to function.” Bill Kling, the former president and chief executive of American Public Media, says public broadcasting will eventually be “the last journalism standing,” (Jensen – 2011).
History of Budget Threats
From a historical standpoint, this isn’t the first time PBS and public media have been under fire from conservatives. During the 1970’s, members of the Nixon Administration “were dismayed” with the newly introduced network because of a “perceived liberal bias in news and information programs,” (Blumenthal-Goodenough, 2006). As a result, the growth of PBS was temporarily halted due to actions taken by the Administration and Congress to veto funding measures. These early actions aimed to stymie PBS ended up making it a “membership organization, funded largely by dues paid by locally owned and operated member stations,” (Blumenthal-Goodenough, 2006). With PBS becoming locally owned and operated, problems continue to this day on how public television structure their news and information. According to a recent Aspen Institute Study, “PBS’s national news and information programs are not produced by a single entity but by production companies or member stations in Washington, New York, Boston and Miami for distribution to other stations. Up to now, this has made it more difficult for the program producers to coordinate their efforts and bring their collective strengths to bear on major news stories such as elections or the economic crisis,” (Everhart, 2010).
In conclusion, public television has the ability to play a important role in meeting the information needs of local communities. In order to survive long into the future however, public television will still need to require outside funding both on the federal and philanthropic level. It will also take collective leadership within PBS to embrace and utilize ever-expanding digital platforms. Signs of this transformation are slowing taking root in public television as this April, “NewsHour…quietly began streaming its newscast online live, for free, on ustream.tv,” (Jensen, 2011). Another recent example of PBS embracing online digital content was when “NewsHour” created the “oil widget,” which allowed people to view “an embeddable player that showed BP footage of the Gulf oil leak with a variety of counters that the user could select from to calculate how much oil was flowing. The oil widget went viral, with 12 million page views by the end of June, and was embedded on 6,000 web pages, (Jensen – 2011). As a direct result, the Columbia Journalism review points out “NewsHour” website traffic in the summer of 2010 ran “40 percent above the previous year,” (Jensen – 2011). This example of remarkable growth is something the PBS will continue to need to capitalize upon in the future. The fact remains, PBS can succeed in a rapidly changing digital age by fully embracing it instead of shunning new ways people access the news and media content. By building on existing strengths that has kept PBS going for decades, nurturing creativity, and developing a strong leadership strutter, public television can modify itself into public media service that meet the needs of the American people.
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3) Corporation for public broadcasting. Retrieved from http://www.cpb.org/
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