Now that President Trump has unveiled his budget and put public broadcasters on notice that he plans to zero-out the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, alarm bells have gone off. The hashtag #JusticeForBigBird started trending, and the CPB (I currently sit on its board of directors) defended itself in a statement that read, in part: “The elimination of federal funding to CPB would initially devastate and ultimately destroy public media’s role in early childhood education, public safety, connecting citizens to our history, and promoting civil discussions — all for Americans in both rural and urban communities.”
But this defense ignores today’s dramatically changed media environment. Public media now rarely offers anything that Americans can’t get from for-profit media or that can’t be supported privately.
The president’s budget is, as he might say, an opening bid. So, by the time a budget is passed, odds are that CPB will still be left standing. But if Congress actually seeks to make a meaningful cut to the $445 million annual appropriation for public television and radio, it will be tough for the CPB and its constituent networks, PBS and NPR, to make the case that they still deserve the money — even though, according to a PBS survey, 70 percent of Trump voters don’t favor eliminating federal funding for public broadcasting.
They’ll have a hard time arguing that at a time of near-limitless viewing and listening choices — and with Big Bird already migrated to pay cable — there’s still a market failure: a dearth of offerings of for-profit TV, radio and the Internet that necessitate a continued federal subsidy.
And they’ll have to acknowledge, and take steps to correct, the reality that public broadcasting appeals to a narrow regional and socioeconomic audience. Arguing as a 7-year-old valiantly did at Sen. Tom Cotton’s (R-Ark.) recent town hall that Trump “is deleting all the parks and PBS Kids just to make a wall” just won’t cut it.
It was 1967 when the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was established “to encourage public telecommunications services which will be responsive to the interests of people both in particular localities and throughout the United States, which will constitute an expression of diversity and excellence, and which will constitute a source of alternative telecommunications services for all the citizens of the Nation.” In an era in which television was described as a “vast wasteland,” CPB would “encourage the development of programming that involves creative risks and that addresses the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, particularly children and minorities” that wasn’t then available via commercial outlets.
But if that’s the mission, it’s mission accomplished now in the private sector. For-profit media produce programming that is ethnically and ideologically diverse. Audiences once considered underserved — whether that means children of color, political conservatives, devotees of independent film or science geeks — can find what they’re looking for on commercial radio and TV. Yes, public media makes outstanding contributions, from the films of Ken Burns to the enterprising foreign reporting of NPR. But one cannot assume that absent federal funding, there would be no sources of support for “diversity and excellence.”
Fifty years ago, after all, was before 24-hour-a-day news, premium cable, satellite radio and the Internet, when broadcast was dominated by the major networks, and radio was moribund. Today we live in a golden age of commercially produced original American drama, comedy, news and reality programming. Programming that features diverse casting and diverse storytelling can be found on a multitude of free and pay services — ranging from ABC’s lighthearted but thought-provoking sitcom “Blackish” to Netflix’s critically acclaimed, hard-hitting “13th,” a documentary about “race, justice and mass incarceration.” Netflix rents the independently produced film, “The Wise Kids,” a well-reviewed story of a gay evangelical Christian high school student. HBO now airs new episodes of “Sesame Street.”
In the past, if viewers wanted a news alternative to the big three networks, the only place they could turn was PBS’s “MacNeil/Lehrer Report.” Today there are the major cable outlets (Fox News Channel, CNN, MSNBC) and their smaller siblings (Fox Business Channel, HLN, CNBC). There’s a proliferation of partisan cable news programming, ranging from right-leaning Newsmax to left-leaning VICE. Nearly every point of view and every type of music can be heard on SiriusXM satellite radio. It was PBS that once had to be the vehicle for Julia Child; today she’d be a staple on the Food Network. There’s no reason “Downton Abbey” couldn’t have run on BBC America.
All this might matter less if it were clear that public media was a preferred choice of a broad cross-section of the American public. Doing so was part of the original mission. Instead, public media today looks far too much like a niche programming service for a left-leaning, upmarket urban constituency.
Of the top 10 most popular NPR affiliates, only one (Atlanta) is found in the South or Southwest. The major, “producing stations” of television programming — locals that provide the lion’s share of content broadcast on smaller affiliates — are based in liberal bastions Boston, New York and Washington. NPR, in data expected to appeal to financial underwriters, boasts that some 58 percent of NPR listeners are college graduates, and that its listeners are “74 percent more likely to earn more than $100,000.” (One NPR slide deck boasts that its programming reaches “cultural connoisseurs” likely to drink four glasses of wine per week.) The appeal makes a virtue of its elite demographics, noting NPR “attracts an audience most notably distinguished by its educational excellence and professional success.” In 2014, Pew Research found that “The clear majority of audience (67 percent) is left-of-center.” Nothing wrong with that, of course, unless your statutory mandate is to reach and inform the American citizenry broadly.
That funding of public media has become a partisan issue suggests a failure on its part. If there is a coverage bias at work it shows itself in story selection: the Dakota Access Pipeline protests rather than the economic benefits of fracking. Ideally, public media would cover these evenly.
One area where public media does, increasingly, provide something the market doesn’t is local news and public affairs programming. In recent years, an increasing number of NPR stations (New York, Boston, Portland, Los Angeles, Dallas, St. Louis) have moved to a news and public affairs format, providing local news coverage at a time when local newspapers are withering and the ranks of state capital and city hall reporters have been decimated. This type of coverage would seem an ideal function for public media and a way, potentially, to reach a wider variety of viewers and listeners. It may, indeed, be a rationale for ongoing government support, but could just as well point toward a way for public media to thrive in a post-subsidy era.
Good local programming helps local stations — which are independent, nonprofit entities — raise local funds, just as national programming attracts private-sector underwriting. Already, according to NPR, its member stations only rely on government funding for 14 percent of revenue. CPB distributes “community service grants” to local stations, but much of that money winds up being recycled to PBS and NPR for the right to air national programming. This year, 40 percent of NPR’s more than $200 million in revenue came from local stations. In 2014, PBS assessed member stations $186 million, a large chunk of the $223 million distributed that year in community service grants for local television stations. Money for local stations, in other words, doesn’t all stay local.
After this budget cycle, if public broadcasters continue to receive federal support, they must start appealing to more than just blue-state America. They should revisit and expand the meaning of diversity to include more ideological and geographic perspectives, and be required to report regularly to Congress as to viewership and listenership in states and major metro areas across the country.
Pointing to past success is not enough. Apart from the budget process, the president should use his appointment prerogative for the CPB’s three open board seats to steer public media in a different direction. That will continue to be my mission as a board member — encouraging public media to adapt to a new environment. Public media must demonstrate that it can serve truly diverse audiences in ways the private market can’t. Otherwise, the system’s budget will deserve to be zeroed out.
Correction: The online version of this article was updated to correctly reflect the wording of the Public Broadcasting Act and to clarify that “The Wise Kids” is available on, not produced by, Netflix.