Erik Martin is a graduate student at the Oxford Internet Institute, and was a policy adviser at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
In 1961, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minow famously told a group of TV broadcast executives, “When television is bad, nothing is worse.”
Today, we’re confronted with another medium gone bad: the Internet. We should bring on the breakup of big tech and the online privacy laws that are way overdue. But a healthy public sphere needs a healthy public media. We’ve built the equivalent for television and radio. Now it’s time to do it for the Internet. The simplest way to proceed is to tax major technology companies to pay for better content. But Congress and the FCC could also take creative advantage of these services to get high-quality news and smart children’s programming in front of all Americans.
In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act into law to spur the development of noncommercial radio and TV programming “that will be responsive to the interests of people,” and “that addresses the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, particularly children and minorities.” The result was publicly funded classics such as “Sesame Street” and “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” as well as investigative news such as “Frontline” and educational programs such as “Nova” — freely distributed for all.
But public media’s power to educate generations and inform citizens is diminishing in an ever-more-digitized landscape that amplifies junk and misinformation, and queues up creepy kid-show knockoffs instead of quality programming. To the degree that there is a public interest at work here, it is an interest in what you are clicking, buying and liking, not in information on consumers as citizens.
Perhaps we ought to be grateful that Facebook recently pledged to “invest” $300 million in local media initiatives, joining Google, which also promised $300 million to “build a stronger future for news.” But the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s budget is only about $445 million . Funding for local public media by all state governments combined is roughly $235 million. According to financial reports by PBS and NPR, individual contributions from activities like pledge drives are even less than that. American journalism will now be subsidized by big tech at a level on par with public funding. That should make us all uncomfortable, especially given the tech industry’s powerful interest in controlling its image and maintaining public trust.
Americans like public media. NPR still consistently ranks among the most trusted news sources. Likewise, Americans have rated PBS among the most trusted institutions in the United States for the past decade and a half, according to polls conducted on PBS’s behalf. But these services operate in an increasingly challenging environment. Government cuts have forced public media to become far more dependent on listener contributions, sponsorships and private donors. These organizations have had to chase audiences migrating to private platforms along with the rest of the media, meeting audiences “where they’re at.”
To their credit, public media have made an impressive effort to upgrade on a dime. PBS states that its Digital Studios division averaged more than 38 million views per month on YouTube. NPR recently co-published a report about the promise of smart-speaker devices such as Amazon Echo for audience growth.
Still, we ought to be leery of the conditions under which public media is increasingly forced to operate. Tech companies own many of the railways on which the rest of the media runs. Public broadcasters have had to strike deals with tech giants and pay cable channels, the most prominent being the move by “Sesame Street” to HBO. They vie for attention on social media feeds that exist to sell advertising and generate lucrative streams of consumer data. How can public media navigate the tricky matter of serving the public interest when their access to the public is through an algorithmic black box someone else owns entirely?
Rather than let public broadcasters who have accrued so much public trust languish — or, worse, be co-opted by a tech industry that has a vast interest in how its portrayed — both our federal and state governments need to play a more active role in public media’s health and digital future.
A billion-dollar federal funding infusion to upgrade public media would be a start — perhaps paid for by a “journalism tax” on the largest tech platforms, as has been proposed in Britain.
But Congress could also grant the FCC an updated mandate to guarantee that high-quality educational and informational public media is distributed on major tech platforms at limited or no cost to the public. There’s precedent to do so: In the ’90s, Congress passed the Children’s Television Act, which gave the FCC regulatory authority to require commercial TV broadcasters to air such content.
Today’s equivalent might be to require Netflix and Amazon to air PBS shows on free limited subscriptions available to parents on low incomes, and for Facebook to advertise these subscriptions and other public media content to new parents as well.
The same approach could be taken for news. We could require the largest social media sites to provide an opt-in public media updates service, notifying users in a county or region when their public media station is broadcasting live or reporting breaking news, and letting them know where to tune in directly on the platform. Telecommunications providers such as AT&T could be required to provide free access to public media on their hotspots. This kind of regulation would recognize that it is not enough to create more high-quality public media content without making sure the platforms on which they’re delivered make that content easy to access.
The FCC did propose to update its children’s television rules last summer, but the Republican-led commission has sought to roll back the requirements for TV broadcasters while imposing no new ones for online platforms. In an official blog post, FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly argued that such requirements are outdated in the Internet age, and he’s right. However, the solution is not a return to the same kind of free-market wasteland Newton Minow decried in 1961.
What the Internet needs is a fresh infusion of public media, properly funded and paired with federal policy that puts the public interest first.