A fight with few consequences

Published 11:24 pm Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Congress established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the organization behind public television (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR), in 1967 to bring Federal support to hundreds of under-funded public television and radio stations.  Spirited fights periodically erupt over appropriations to the CPB, which today are around $450 million annually and comprise 10% to 15% of public broadcasting’s budget.   The fights are likely to continue, largely because at this point there is little at stake except principle.  Consequently politicians of both parties get to readily demonstrate their ideological resolve to liberals and conservatives.

First let’s consider the issues of principle involved in Federal support for public broadcasting.  Liberals see tax dollars as an antidote to the commercial media, an opportunity to pursue a vison of the public interest beyond selling soap and cars, including serious journalism.  Conservatives see tax dollars being spent on programming that could be supplied by the market, and rail about the liberal bias of PBS and NPR news programs.

Now let’s consider why there’s nothing of consequence to fight over here except principle.  Congressional appropriations amount to 0.01% of annual Federal spending, so cutting this will do essentially nothing to reduce the Federal deficit.  If Washington has us on a path to financial ruin, catastrophe is coming whether or not we spend $1.50 per American annually on public broadcasting.  On the other hand, although a reasonable argument exists for taxpayer support, making public broadcasters fund 85% of their budget prevents attainment of the potential benefits of taxpayer support.

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The economic argument for government support is worth exploring.  Television and radio news and entertainment programs are costly, and someone must pay this cost.  How we pay this cost affects the programming funded.  Our system of commercial broadcasting relies on advertisers paying to have their messages mixed in with programs.  Advertising support affects program selection, although the mechanism is more subtle than the popular notion of advertisers dictating to networks.  Advertisers want their ads to reach as many potential consumers as possible.  It does not matter to the advertiser if the viewer lives to watch the accompanying program or can’t find anything better to watch.  Consequently, advertising supports programs with large but indifferent audiences over programs enjoyed immensely by a small audience.  We probably can all recall a favorite show with a small but fiercely loyal following which was cancelled due to low ratings.  This is the economic bias of advertising.  Government funding could conceivably increase the volume of small audience, highly valued programming.

The media environment for the above argument, however, is at least forty years out of date.  Advertising’s bias results from a limited number of channels, which was valid when we had just three national TV networks and only a couple of independent stations in most markets.  Cable, satellite and streaming have made channel limitation as antiquated as black-and-white television.

The proliferation of outlets also renders any bias of public broadcasting’s news programs irrelevant.  Even if NPR is as liberal as conservatives allege, people can listen to Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, and others.  Technology no longer permits a liberal news cartel.

Furthermore, few of PBS and NPR’s programs would likely disappear if Federal appropriations were axed.  PBS has long been a leader for educational children’s programming, with PBS Kids programs now airing on NBC on Saturday mornings.  Children’s shows and characters have significant revenue-generating potential through games, toys, clothing, dolls, and even live action shows and theme parks.

One could reasonably argue that such commercialization, especially of children’s programs, is not good.  But commercial compromises will already be made when public broadcasting has to raise 85% of its revenue.  Full government funding of public broadcasting is not happening any time soon.

We are left with a symbolic issue with few practical consequences.  So Representatives and Senators can go to the mattresses to score points with their most liberal or conservative supporters.  For most Americans, this particular ideological fight will not matter very much.

Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision.  Respond to him at dsutter@troy.edu and like the Johnson Center on Facebook.

About Dan Sutter

I am the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University.

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