CPB Study: Federal Funding Loss Could "Destroy" Public Broadcasting

Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

More than half of all public broadcasting stations would be put "at risk" if federal funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting were eliminated, according to a new report commissioned in response to attacks from conservatives that put the funding in jeopardy.

The report stated: "Ending federal funding for public broadcasting would severely diminish, if not destroy, public broadcasting service in the United States."

The study, released June 20 from Booz & Company Inc., reviewed alternative funding options for public broadcasting if federal funding is removed. It found that trying to replace such funding -- which accounts for about 15% of CPB's operating budget -- with advertising and other revenue would be detrimental as well.

In 2011, a House vote to defund National Public Radio was supported by numerous conservative commentators, many spouting false claims of liberal bias and citing alternative sources that could be used to replace the federal dollars -- many of which the CPB report finds ineffective.

"There have been a lot of suggestions that public broadcasters could just turn to commercial broadcasting, but this report shows that is not possible," said Tim Isgitt, senior vice-president for communications and government affairs at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. "The most surprising thing that comes out of this report is that advertising would significantly limit our other funding sources; foundations provide funding because it is a public good and mission driven. They wouldn't do that if we were a commercial model, and individual members would be less likely to give money to an entity that is commercial."

The study was commissioned at the request of the Conference Report accompanying the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2012 (H.R. 2055). The report states that "the conferees requested that CPB provide a report to House and Senate Committees on Appropriations within 180 days of enactment of the Act on alternative sources of funding for public broadcasting stations in lieu of federal funding."

The report states, in part:

A reduction or elimination of CPB funding will put 63% (251) of radio stations and 67% (114) of television stations in the public broadcasting system at risk:

19% (76) of radio stations and 32% (54) of TV Stations that currently operate at a minimum practical cost level, and would be at a high risk of closing.

44% (175) of radio stations and 35% (60) of TV stations have a history of operating deficits and would suffer reduced effectiveness or closure under increased financial pressure.

"Without the federal funding provided through CPB, the high quality content, universal service and accountability to the American people would not be there," Isgitt added.

The study indicated a shift from a non-commercial approach to a commercial advertising model "would have dramatically negative consequences for many of the communities that public broadcasters serve. In the absence of federal funding, there are small urban stations, small-market stations, rural stations and stations that serve diverse communities that will likely fail because they do not have the capacity to either shift to a commercial model or raise the revenue to replace the loss of CPB funding."

The study points out that several public stations, such as KPBS Radio and Television in San Diego, would lose powerful programming if funding was cut.

Among the programs cited is Envision San Diego, the award-winning series that KPBS produces about local issues and people.

"The CPB funds only account for about 11% of our budget, but that money is a vital base for our operation and allows us to commit staff and resources to doing what we do best: providing great content on all platforms and offering quality news and analysis," KPBS General Manager Tom Karlo told Media Matters in an email. "Yes, we would have to make adjustments in the short term. Long term, however, could be a different story. We are very aware of the smaller rural stations that will likely go off the air as a result of defunding. That would impact the dues we pay to the system and then the programming that we all air. The quality and quantity of content would diminish. No doubt. "

The study also cited three examples of commercial broadcasting stations that switched to public broadcasting for numerous reasons, revenue among them, within the past year.

Among them is KING-FM in Seattle, a classical music station that switched to a public funding formula in 2011 after commercial revenue slipped.

Jennifer Ridewood, general manager of KING, told Media Matters the station had been a commercial venture since 1947, but had reverted to a non-profit commercial formula in 1989. All of its profits since then had been donated to a non-profit organization that funded three arts organizations in Seattle.

"Profits were declining so there was no longer any dividend for the arts groups and we were just breaking even," Ridewood recalls about the reason for the switch, noting classical listeners did not like the commercials as well. "The quality of the advertising and the 60 second commercial does not sound good on a classical station. It affected our listeners' experience of the music."

Although the station's weekly audience has grown from 250,000 to 300,000 listeners since the switch was made a year ago, federal funding is still a key necessity.

"Traditionally only 10 percent of the listeners donate," she said. "So if we lost federal funding, we would not do as diverse programing to reach out to as many communities."

Other public stations, such as KPBS Radio and Television in San Diego, are examples of stations the report notes would lose powerful programming if funding was cut.

Among the programs cited is Envision San Diego, the award-winning series that KPBS produces about local issues and people.

"The CPB funds only account for about 11% of our budget, but that money is a vital base for our operation and allows us to commit staff and resources to doing what we do best: providing great content on all platforms and offering quality news and analysis," KPBS General Manager Tom Karlo told Media Matters in an email. "Yes, we would have to make adjustments in the short term. Long term, however, could be a different story. We are very aware of the smaller rural stations that will likely go off the air as a result of defunding. That would impact the dues we pay to the system and then the programming that we all air. The quality and quantity of content would diminish. No doubt. "

Booz & Co., which declined comment on the report and referred all questions to the CPB, also noted in the report that most public opinion about federal funding is supportive:

The American public clearly believes that federal funding is an appropriate, effective and valued use of their tax dollars. Overwhelmingly, the public believes that federal funding for public broadcasting is money well spent and the best value for America's tax dollars, second only to national defense

This report concludes that there is no substitute for federal support of public broadcasting, and that the loss of federal support would mean the end of public broadcasting, and with it the end of an extraordinarily useful national teaching tool, the loss of the most trusted source of news and public affairs programs in the nation, the erosion of our national memory and exceptional culture, the compromise of our civil defense and emergency alert system, and the demise of a federal investment that the American people consider a better use of tax dollars than any other except national defense.

Other key findings from the report:

* Noncommercial radio and television stations in many localities would struggle to survive without the national impact, high quality content and accountability that federal funding has made possible for the last 45 years.

* Fifty-four public television stations in 19 states are at high risk of no longer being able to sustain operations if federal funding were eliminated. Of the 54 stations, 31 serve predominantly rural areas, and 19 provide the only public television service available to viewers in their service area. If these 54 stations ceased broadcasting, more than 12 million Americans would lose access to the only public television program service currently available to them over the air.

* Seventy-six public radio stations in 38 states are at high risk of no longer being able to sustain operations if federal funding were eliminated. Of the 76 stations, 47 serve rural communities, 46 offer the only public radio service available to their listeners, and 10 provide the only broadcast service--radio or television, public or commercial--available over the air to their listeners. If these 76 stations at high risk ceased broadcasting, nearly 3.5 million Americans would lose access to the only public radio program service currently available to them over the air.

The report also reviewed five options for alternative funding: television advertising, radio advertising, retransmission consent fees, paid digital subscriptions and digital game publishing.

The result: "None of the five options for alternative sources of revenue offers a realistic opportunity to generate significant positive net revenue that could replace the current amount of federal funding that CPB receives through the appropriations process on behalf of public."

On the issue of commercial advertising, particularly political advertising, the CPB study found it would have a detrimental effect on public broadcasting's credibility:

The sale of issue or political advertising would quickly erode the public's trust in the integrity of public broadcasting's content, even more quickly than would the sale of commercial advertising. Moreover, revenues that could be obtained from the sale of issue or political advertising would be volatile and unevenly distributed, since any particular station's attractiveness to prospective political or issue advertisers will depend on local political, public opinion, and advertising conditions that may change from one election cycle or legislative session to the next.

The report comes in the wake of recent efforts dating back more than a year to defund public broadcasting, primarily from conservative groups and commentators who claim the federal funding is unnecessary and that public broadcasting is liberal-leaning and offers a biased approach.

In 2011, a House vote to defund National Public Radio was supported by numerous conservative commentators, many spouting false claims of liberal bias and citing alternative sources that could be used to replace the federal dollars -- many of which the CPB report finds ineffective.

Among the examples, a March 18, 2011 Fox & Friends segment in which host Brian Kilmeade claimed NPR is biased: "In the House yesterday, they voted on defunding NPR. It's not going to balance the budget. It's not going to get rid of the deficit. It sends an important message that if you're going to have public radio, the Republicans would say you really should be fair and balanced -- and not have an agenda." Co-host Steve Doocy responded, "Sure. Exactly right."

Some conservative commentators, however, told Media Matters in March 2011 that they supported elements of public broadcasting, specifically National Public Radio news coverage.

Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, said the conservative effort to stop public broadcasting perpetuates unfair myths.

"There has been this long-running belief that public broadcasting is part of this vast left-wing conspiracy and if you do an analysis that is not the case. If you look at what PBS and NPR do it is stuff that is not provided in the fragmented marketplace," he said. "I think if you look at the output of these operations as a whole, I think you will see something that is breathtakingly centrist. I think you would be hard-pressed to point to some place that is doing what Frontline is doing."

Isgitt agrees pointed to two recent polls that find public trust in public broadcasting is on the rise.

He cited The National Journal/All State Heartland Monitor Poll released June 7 that found public television and radio are the most trusted forms of traditional media, with 75% of respondents placing a "great deal" or "some" trust in public broadcasting. That compares to 70% in cable news and just 30% in social media sites.

Another survey, the annual Civility in America report from Weber Shandwick, found that PBS is considered the most civil media outlet, with 67% of those polled considering it civil, while Fox News was found to be the most uncivil with 35% labeling the cable news outlet as such.

"The American people support and value the service that we provide," Isgitt added.

Network/Outlet
Fox News Channel, PBS, NPR
Stories/Interests
Investigations
We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.