By Wick Rowland, President and CEO
One of the discussion points in the current debate about federal funding of public broadcasting deeply puzzles me. It’s the argument that public media should be able to stand on their own feet in the commercial marketplace. That position thoroughly misconstrues the very philosophical and statutory underpinnings for educationally-focused public service broadcasting in this society, and in every other advanced democracy.
Irrespective of federal funds, the FCC broadcasting licenses that we hold at Colorado Public Television and that are held by all other public stations in the state, are for “noncommercial, educational” purposes. That is, federal policy establishes a special category of radio and television service that is intended to protect public media from the pressures of ratings and rampant commercialism, and it actually prevents us from many standard commercial advertising practices such as direct calls to action, mentions of product prices and hard selling.
An advertising based media system inevitably drives content “down market.” Public television is expected to provide a “safe haven” of programming for children. It also is expected to be the safe place for the creative, experimental, deeply informative and, yes, even unpopular programming that the marketplace simply will not provide. But to do that public broadcasting in turn needs a “safe haven” within which to do its important work.
There are plenty of commercial opportunities for people to see programming that is funded by toy companies, big pharma, huge defense contractors and partisan political interests. Public television offers an alternative with licensing restrictions that also keep our programming free of lobbying, propaganda and bias. A healthy American society needs a portion of the media system that is a safe haven from both commercial and political interests.
The CPT12 mission statement articulates a number of noncommercial, educational values, among them that we “respect our viewers, members and publics as, first and foremost, inquisitive, discerning citizens.” That orientation calls for strong education, arts, culture, science and vigorous public affairs, and it stands in direct contrast to media that are designed primarily for delivering consumers to advertisers. Our entire civilization is stronger when we have special places in the society to help develop thoroughly informed, well-educated, rationally engaged citizens, and that’s precisely where noncommercial public broadcasting fits in.
Nor am I impressed by the argument that federal funding shouldn’t be provided because it means that all taxpayers are helping support public media, whether or not they listen or watch There are many aspects of federal spending that are not universally popular, but which in the end we agree to support because they contribute to the common good. We have great disagreements about aspects of spending on defense, transportation, the environment, basic research and, of course, education itself. Yet we generally underwrite those services every April 15, because we concur on their importance for the health of the Republic and our understanding that the commercial marketplace and private enterprise system will not adequately support them.
As one simple example here in Colorado, our citizens have repeatedly said it’s good for our communities if we have well-funded arts, culture and scientific institutions and we have voted for SCFD to provide it, regardless of ticket sales and mass popularity. The argument for federal funding of public broadcasting is no different.