America’s ITV? 

1 May 2007 0 tbs.pm/2146 Report an error in this article

In the United States, public service broadcasting exists primarily thanks to the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) for television, along with National Public Radio (NPR), which came into being in 1967, nineteen years after being first proposed by famous broadcaster Ed Murrow. Funded direct by money allocated by Congress, they are far more likely to have their wings clipped if they are felt to be too critical of the government than is a BBC funded at arm’s length by a special licence fee. Chase Erwin looks at funding for public broadcasting, US style. Is PBS turning into just another commercial broadcaster? What will be the effect of a Democrat-controlled Congress after years of Republican cutbacks and accusations of ‘liberal bias’?

There is no government mandate for the public to actually contribute money to the Public Broadcasting Service, the US’s nearest equivalent to the BBC. Even so, viewer contributions make up on average between 35 and 60 percent or more of a PBS station’s yearly operating budget. Corporate underwriters provide another chunk, financing the production of PBS’s mainstay programmes such as science anthology Nova (traditionally often co-produced as Horizon with the BBC), or concert series Austin City Limits. In recent years, both corporate America and the American public have opened up their wallets—remember, completely voluntarily—to support PBS, while a Republican Congress has steadily decreased their contribution year after year.

Public broadcasting is just more than PBS, which in itself provides a multitude of educational services. There is also NPR, National Public Radio, itself a separate entity but which provides cross-promotion with PBS programming. There is the Ready-To-Learn Initiative, a method of incorporating PBS’s award-winning children’s programmes into the classroom. The Adult Learning Service puts multimedia into college classes. And there is the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the agency which oversees PBS and NPR’s funding progress, and the name written on the ‘Pay to’ section of Congress’s cheque.

America is in debt to the tune of tens of trillions of dollars, a fact made clear back in the Clinton years. But even with such a daunting amount of money in the red, the Clinton administration made it quite clear that public broadcasting had to stay, and that with bipartisan collaboration, there could be found a solution to guarantee the amount of federal funding.

But then the Bush administration moved in, and we were almost immediately thrown into a war. Documentaries aired as part of Frontline or Independent Lens were seen by Republicans as ‘too liberal.’ The CPB and PBS got into heated public debates about editorial issues and party biases. This gave some an easy way to explain why each year since the war, Congress has sought to cut PBS’ budget. In 2005, Congress cut the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s funding from $495 million to $380 million. They tried to make the Corporation take another 22% cut in funding last year, and suggested a 25% cut this past February, but the uproar caused by the announcement made the government change their minds and look elsewhere to cut budgets. If the reason for cutting the money were truly about ‘getting back’ at PBS, it might have happened anyway.

It’s difficult to imagine their being any sort of bipartisan cooperation as Clinton hoped for. The CPB is a primarily Republican organization, yet the ultra-conservative American Family Association, also Republican-staffed, lobbies Congress every year to cut CPB funding altogether. Among Democrats, the more liberal senators want public broadcasting to retain all funding, but even so, more conservative Dems join their political opponents in approving budget cuts come voting time.

The $115 million reduction may not seem like such a blow. But consider this: PBS sells its programmes on video and DVD to the commercial and educational markets, the proceeds of which go to help supplement the budget. Supplements also come from the sale of books, CDs and other media. From all those outside ventures, PBS only earned $14 million in 2006.

The results mean more headaches to PBS and to its viewers. The ‘PBS Pledge Drive’ is a subject of ridicule in pop culture. Pledge drives are how the stations appeal to viewers to donate money. They usually happen once every quarter, and go for one or two weeks. However, due to the federal budget cuts, some of the bigger stations, such as KERA in Dallas, have to take the entire month of March to make appeals. KLRU in Austin puts up a scoreboard in the background of their appeals, always mentioning that they never ask for more than what they know they need. Ten years ago, the goal marker during each drive was about $95,000. The last pledge drive goal of 2006 was over a quarter million dollars.

Corporate sponsorships have been part of public TV since day one. PBS’s predecessor, NET (National Educational Television) set the standard for the rules in which corporate advertisers can sponsor programmes. The first episode of Sesame Street was prefaced and preceded by a caption card silently rolling off a list of commercial sponsors. As the years went on, the sponsors had to find better ways for their contributions to be justified without at the same time reverting to an advertisement, something strictly forbidden by FCC rules. Captions became animated, logos began to be allowed, music playing in the background.

Two years ago, something shocking appeared before the start of a normal night of PBS primetime programming in Dallas: a minute-long video of a Lexus doing nothing but driving. No claims, no prices, no announcement of “See your local Lexus dealer,” but when the car finally stopped, the announcer said “Lexus is proud to support public television.” Viewers were outraged, assuming they had just seen an ad. What they had actually seen was perhaps the future of sponsorship announcements on public broadcasting. Dallas is testing this type of marketing: by law, without any sales claims or price quotes, the minute long piece is simply an elongated sponsor credit, something the businesses ask for to justify their increasing donation amounts.

Rolex has done similar spots locally in recent months, and it begs the question: has PBS finally become America’s ITV? The answer is a decided ‘no.’ Thanks to a forty-year old act passed by the FCC, PBS and NPR are in no danger of becoming commercialized in the normal sense, and they will always receive some sort of financial backing by Congress.

Viewers are in no risk of tuning their sets to PBS and setting their kids down to watch Big Bird, only to see toy commercials. Doing so would be a direct violation of the network’s charter, not to mention FCC rules, and would make the CPB liable to fines and the cutting off of all funding. What we are in for, and what we’ve already seen start to happen, is an alteration of the rules of how money can be raised; by lengthening pledge drives—which some already see as disruptive—and coming up with newer ways to attract corporate donors while dancing the fine line between sponsorship and advertising.

Democrats have only been in control of Congress for a short time—far too early to tell what the financial future will hold for public broadcasting in the USA. It is very unlikely the CPB will face a total cut of federal funds: the trick is trying, at least, to prevent the current figure from falling further. What viewers and listeners will notice, however, is the once-broad distinction between funding announcement and commercial become narrower—unless they decide to contemplate opening their wallets even further.

Chase Erwin

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