Save public broadcasting - but only if the "public" is put back in

by Jeff Chester, Digital Destiny

Groups such as Moveon.org and others have rightly responded to the proposed Bush Administration budget slash to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (around a 25% reduction to CPB’s funding for public television and radio). There is now a campaign to help restore funding and also politically pave the way for some form of permanent support—such as a “Trust Fund.”

While reversing the cuts is necessary, it is too early to support any permanent funding plan. More money won’t cure PBS’s problems. It will just enable the network to display higher-priced collectibles on Antiques Roadshow. The system needs to be restructured so the public interest is better guaranteed via a truly non-commercial approach. We also must think beyond today’s PBS and NPR to ensure there will be funding to support a much more expansive and diverse non-commercial digital environment. But to begin with PBS. Its annual budget should be required to have mandatory requirements for programming. For example, PBS—and its stations—should be mandated to reserve around 30% of annual revenues to pay for news and public affairs programming. Investigative news programming produced locally and nationally would be part of this commitment. A significant amount of funding would need to go for cultural programming. All children’s programming must be fully non-commercial: no underwriters, brand-tie-ins and even toy deals (that would be needed for news as well). Like news, the PBS “kidvid” block would receive a guarantee percentage of the Trust Fund revenues. PBS would be required to underwrite programming which reflect the needs of a diverse and under-served audience. It would have to ensure independent producers, especially women and producers of color, create at least half of all its annual programming. A review process would be created via an independent committee that would report annually to the public how well PBS was fulfilling its Trust Fund obligations. PBS and its stations would also be required to develop governance reforms which would help put the “public” back into public broadcasting. There could be similar approaches to NPR (This blogger has worked on PBS issues for many years, so my expertise is with the TV side versus public radio).

Finally, an independent body would be set up which would provide grants directly to producers and others who produce non-commercial content across various platforms. Such funding would grow in time as the need for stations recedes due to the digital transformation. (A Trust Fund would have to alter its funding strategies to reflect current and impending changes in media use). CPB would be replaced, of course. I don’t believe Congress will “free” public broadcasting soon. But as we begin the conversation about its future, much more serious deliberation is needed. We shouldn’t help save “Big Bird” if all the public is going to get is more of the same of what we have today. That’s why advocates need to clearly offer a serious restructuring that will better guarantee the country has a set of diverse non-commercial digital services it deserves.

article originally published at http://www.democraticmedia.org/jcblog/?p=173.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey