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What U.S. Public Broadcasting Really Needs

During the recent debates about political interference in public broadcasting and the threats to its funding, a few important facts have been overlooked or misinterpreted.

For instance, it has been widely reported that federal funding comprises only about 15 percent of the total budget of all of public radio and television. In fact, the total federal contribution is closer to 25 percent (the 15 percent figure covers the amount that flows through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting).

Some stories also have suggested that the proportion of federal funding for stations is below 10 percent. For many stations, however, the share is much higher. For KBDI-Channel 12 (Colorado Public Television) it is close to 20 percent, and for others it is double that.

Understated figures have led some to conclude that lost federal funding could somehow be readily replaced and that its permanent elimination might not be such a problem after all. Both conclusions are incorrect.

It is important to understand the implications of replacing federal aid. For stations, most replacement dollars would come from devoting more time to membership pledging and commercial sponsorship. At the national level, PBS and NPR would be forced into much more reliance on sponsorship and advertising-based commercial ventures. Such trends would undermine public television's outstanding record in commercial-free children's programming, news, documentaries and public affairs.

Many viewers and listeners tell us that public broadcasting is already pressing the limits of tolerance with pledge drives and quasi-advertising messages. They correctly wonder if it is proper public policy to try to build and improve noncommercial broadcasting by making it more like the commercial media system.

News coverage also has glossed over other important considerations. For instance, there has been little comment on the time-honored traditions of substantial tax-based funding for public culture in every society and the ways in which the commercial media in the U.S. are the beneficiaries of substantial tax-based subsidies.

Throughout history, much of the greatest art, music and architecture has been heavily underwritten by the public treasury. Over the millennia, the prince (whether of church or state) has regularly commissioned some of the best of human creative expression.

In such bastions of capitalist democracy as the U.S., commercial media have benefited from the same sort of governmental largesse that offers tax breaks and other incentives to major industrial and retail corporations. Legally required government notices and preferential postal rates have provided substantial support for newspapers in this country. Commercial broadcast stations have profited enormously from their monopoly rights to highly valuable public airwaves, and the wealth of the cable and telecommunications industries has derived in large part from government grants of exclusive rights-of-way and frequencies. The cumulative value of these government subsidies of the private media has far exceeded the amount of federal support for public broadcasting.

Finally, the coverage of public broadcasting in the U.S. has ignored the dramatically different situation abroad, where substantial tax-based funding is normal. Canada, Japan, Australia, Britain and nations throughout Europe have all built large, robust, stable public-service enterprises that lie at the heart of their media cultures. They have done so by providing substantially higher levels of funding. The per capita rates of support in such countries range from $25 to $100. In the U.S. the figure is less than $1.75.

The reason for these universally higher levels of commitment to the public-service institutions is that most other advanced democracies understand broadcasting's primary role as a cultural enterprise, as a servant to education and civic growth - not just as a tool of commerce. They fully appreciate the realities of state aid to private media, and the way in which independence from commerce in public discourse is as important a value as independence from government. They understand tax-based support to be a healthy check on the censorship of the marketplace.

Over the decades, those nations have learned how to mitigate political interference while maintaining large amounts of public funding, and even in some cases steadily increasing it.

Further coverage and commentary on public broadcasting in the U.S. would do well to examine those experiences abroad and try to understand how their lessons could better inform policy and funding choices here.

The issue in the U.S. is not whether to cut federal support, but how to arrange a substantial increase in it. There are several ways in which the massive public subsidies of the private and fabulously wealthy commercial media can be modestly taxed to provide a "public dividend" that would create an appropriately larger, stable and less politically vulnerable funding base for U.S. public broadcasting. Likewise it is long past due for Colorado to join the ranks of the majority of states in providing a modicum of public support.

True independence for public broadcasting in this country is best ensured by providing it with a variety of balanced funding streams, of which adequate federal and state support are proper elements.

Willard D. ("Wick") Rowland Jr. is president and general manager of KBDI-TV/12, Colorado Public Television

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