Public Broadcasting in Budget Crosshairs

Published June 12, 2012

Federal taxpayer funding for public broadcasting once again is under scrutiny as Congressional leaders seek to stem the growth of the ballooning national deficit. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) and Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO) began exploring in May whether to eliminate the entire $445 million annual budget requested by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

A bill to defund National Public Radio passed the House of Representatives in 2011 but failed to pass the Senate. The $445 million annual allotment helps fund nearly 1,300 public radio and television stations throughout the United States.

“People think that public broadcasting would die without its federal subsidy,” said Edward J. Lopez, a professor of economics at San Jose State University. “That’s not necessarily or even likely to be the case, because markets work for this type of programming. Just look at the Sprout network, which is jointly owned by NBC, PBS, and private investors. Its successful run has been fueled by advertising,” he said.

“The funding is so convoluted and opaque,” Rep. Lamborn told columnist Byron York in 2011. “We asked the Congressional Research Service to look at the books, and a senior analyst got back to us and said it was like a spaghetti bowl — those were his exact words.”

‘Playing Political Games’
In his study published May 21 by the Washington, DC-based libertarian Cato Institute, author Trevor Burrus wrote: “Public broadcasting does not need to go away, it needs to be transformed back into the noncommercial model that thrived before widespread government funding. CPB, PBS, NPR, as well as local public broadcasting outlets such as Wisconsin Public Radio and Television, have the infrastructure and funding to become successful noncommercial, nonprofit broadcasters not tied to public funds.”

Josh Stearns, the public media and journalism campaign director for the Washington, DC-based activist group Free Press, condemned the defunding efforts, arguing in a press release the CPB budget, “which amounts to a fraction of one percent of the overall U.S. budget, is money well spent. Members of Congress who consider this an ‘enormous’ expense need to spend more time with ‘the Count’ on Sesame Street.”

Michael LaFaive, fiscal policy director at the Michigan-based free-market Mackinac Center for Public Policy, disagreed, saying, “If the percentage of the federal budget employed for public broadcasting is that tiny, they’ll have no trouble raising the money privately. Indeed, doing so would provide evidence of just how much people really care about this institution, so let the experiment begin,” he said.

“[P]ublic broadcasting suffers the main downside of public funding—political influence and control—yet enjoys little of the upside—a significant taxpayer contribution that would relieve it of the need to seek corporate underwriting and listener donations,” Burrus wrote. “But the limited taxpayer funding also shows that defunding can be relatively painless. Public broadcasting not only can survive on its own, it can thrive—and be free.”

Hard Decisions Needed
Ed Grant, general manager of Central Michigan University Public Broadcasting in Mt. Pleasant, says the issue of public broadcasting funding “resurfaces regularly, particularly during times of federal budget reductions. The federal pie is only so big, and hard decisions must be made to cut unnecessary funding,” he said.

“Whether public broadcasting funding is viewed as ‘unnecessary’ is up to each individual,” Grant continued. “It is also clear that many feel that government spending should be limited and that the free market should determine how dollars flow for other than essential public services. For those with this view, public broadcasting funding would not be viewed as one of those essential services.”

Grant added, “The public, however, with each year’s public opinion polling numbers, indicates that public broadcasting is the best value of federal funds other than defense. I suspect some of this may be tied to the relatively modest funding of public broadcasting relative to other federal initiatives,” he said.
“Even if the amount is modest, the principle is huge,” said LaFaive. “The money appropriated to this institution is not Congress’s to give in the first place. It belongs to many people who have no desire to be entertained by government broadcasts.”

In his study, Burrus also remarks on Congress: “[P]ublic broadcasting is constitutionally problematic at the least. Nowhere in the Constitution is any power given to Congress to fund the production of media…. The Founders knew that government production of ‘media’ (as we say today) was unnecessary and imprudent.”

‘Let Public Broadcasting Compete’
Grant said federal funding provides approximately 20 percent of WCMU’s budget for both TV and radio. “This funding is then leveraged 4:1 in donor and university support,” he said. “Could we live without the federal funding? Possibly, but the product we air on both TV and radio would be substantially different than what is provided today. In addition, the elimination of federal funding has some significant implications for commercial broadcasters as well, who rely on public stations to fulfill public service mandates from the Federal Communications Commission.”

Lopez counters Grant’s assertions. “Clearly, public broadcasting would come under pressure to transform itself, and we’d likely see a lot of innovation as it seeks to harness advertising revenue from its audience,” Lopez added. “It has an enormous, devoted audience. It’s time to cut the cord and let public broadcasting compete like the rest of the market.”
Bruce Edward Walker ([email protected]) is managing editor of InfoTech & Telecom News.

Internet Info

“If You Love Something, Set It Free: The Case for Defunding Public Broadcasting,” Trevor Burrus, The Cato Institute for Constitutional Studies, Policy Analysis No. 697, May 21, 2012:

“GOP Gears Up Again to Strip NPR of Federal Funds,” Byron York, Washington Examiner, January 13, 2011: