Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Public Broadcasting and the 2018 Budget

Public broadcasting is back in the national spotlight now that the New York Times and Congressional news outlet The Hill have published reports stating the Trump administration's upcoming budget proposal may include the elimination of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the nonprofit corporation entrusted with distributing federal funding to nearly 1,500 publicly owned television and radio stations.

Critics of the current funding model point out that public broadcasters already receive most funding from private donations. When the Heritage Foundation included privatization of the Corporation in a list of 116 recommended reductions to federal discretionary spending, authors noted that National Public Radio (NPR) only receives 5% of its funding from government at any level. They stated that public broadcasters could easily make up lost federal revenue through increased donations from corporations, foundations and citizens. "Many nonprofits manage to stay in business without receiving federal funding by being creative and responding to market fluctuations," remarked the authors. "Public broadcasters should be no exception." (Heritage Foundation 2017, 86)

Supporters of the current funding system counter that while public TV and radio stations may receive a small percentage of their funding from the federal government, the amount is large enough to make a difference, particularly for stations in rural areas. The combination of private donations and public funding allows CPB to partner with local stations to efficiently create content that would not otherwise be produced. At the current federal spending level of $445 million per year, public broadcasting costs American taxpayers the equivalent of $1.35 per person per year. (Corporation for Public Broadcasting 2014) Supporters also maintain that CPB's contribution to the public broadcasting system goes beyond economic efficiency.  A recent editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch emphasized that the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) "provides thoughtful and enriched programming for free to poor and isolated people, and children in particular," and argued that defunding the Corporation "would be a symbolic and mean-spirited mistake." (St. Louis Post-Dispatch 2017)

A recent phone survey commissioned by PBS and carried out by Republican and Democratic research firms found that 73% of respondents opposed eliminating federal funding for public television. Among respondents who voted for Donald Trump, 70% opposed eliminating public television and 60% had a positive impression of the media institution, a greater number than trusted cable TV networks or newspapers. (Bentley and Byrne 2017) This finding is consistent with prior polling on the importance of public broadcasting. (Bettelheim 1999)

How did we get this system of public broadcasting? And does a proposal to cut federal funding in next year's budget mean that CPB is doomed? I'll explore those questions in the next parts of this blog post.

Sanjeet Mann
Arts & Systems Librarian, Armacost Library


Bentley, Anne, and Jennifer Byrne. 2017. “New National Survey Shows 73% of Voters – Including Most Republicans – Oppose Eliminating Federal Funding for Public Television.” February 16.

Bettelheim, Adriel. 1999. “Public Broadcasting: Should the Subsidies Continue?” CQ Researcher 9 (41): 931–50.

Corporation for Public Broadcasting. 2014. “About CPB.” September 22.

Hoser Dude. 2016. "Cookie!" Flickr. 

Heritage Foundation. 2017. “A Blueprint for Balance: A Federal Budget for 2017.” Accessed March 1.

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