The Case for Public Television
The US dominates the world’s market for electronic entertainment. As far as global reach, revenue and influence, no nation has the equivalent of Hollywood. But while US companies like HBO, Showtime and Disney tower over their foreign analogs, the same cannot be said for the humble Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which is dwarfed by its British counterpart, BBC. Last year, CPB got $450 million from the US government; meanwhile BBC got $6.5 billion from the UK. BBC News’ operating budget of $560 million by itself matches PBS’ total budget, for everything.
Mitt Romney made a splash in a presidential debate when he said that he would eliminate funding for public television in the US altogether – as part of a larger effort to reduce the deficit. But as some observed at the time, CPB’s $450 million is only about one one-thousandth of the annual US budget deficit. Anyone serious about reigning in deficits would not focus on a line-item whose elimination would leave the deficit 99.9% intact – so why was Romney singling out Big Bird?
It wasnt ever about deficits – if conservatives had a real concern about those, they wouldnt use every economic boom and bust as an occasion to slash taxes on the super rich. Intrinsic to the conservative religion is the belief that markets are the answer to our every need – and that government provision of goods and services is an evil to be eradicated. The problem with conservative dogma is that economists have documented many markets that fail to do what we need them to do: allow buyers to communicate wants, and sellers to answer them. One well-understood failure is in the market for “information goods.”
Producing good, reliable information is an increasingly unrewarding business. For decades, the most respected and cited news sources have been family-owned – including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. Without shareholders to answer to, they could compromise on profits and improve the quality of the news, with a commitment to investigative journalism and overseas reporting – both especially expensive and unprofitable arms of the news business, but essential to an informed public.
In past years, American network news divisions were never expected to generate a profit, serving instead to elevate their network’s public profile. But decades of corporate management have eroded many once-fine institutions. Gone are network news programs and anchors with the stature of Cronkite, Jennings, Rather and Brokaw. In their place are interchangeable newsmodels, better known for their grooming than their insight or integrity. The Journal has been absorbed by the Murdoch empire. Cable news outlets prefer low-cost, high-return punditry to journalism – and devote hours to vacuous treatments of sports, business, weather, celebrity, and the photogenic disaster-du-jour.
In polls, Americans show their awareness of public television’s superior performance in the provision of news, consistently ranking PBS as their most trusted source, and by a wide margin. More broadly, Americans regard Public Television as the nation’s most trusted institution, public or private! And while PBS is perennially regarded as, far and away, the best source of children’s programming; few realize that PBS prime time audiences are enormous: 50% larger than HBO and 60% larger than CNN – while PBS operates on a budget that’s a scant fraction of either.
PBS today scrapes by on minimal government support, relying heavily on private donations. The problem with this system is the phenomenon of “free riding”: you donate to your local public television station, and your neighbor free rides, enjoying the benefit of your generosity for nothing. The aggregate effect of this behavior is the gross underfunding of a desirable service.
Centuries ago, societies figured this problem out, and found a solution: taxation. We dont sit around waiting for drivers to make donations to keep our roads under repair, or for fellow citizens to throw a few bucks to the police department to keep the streets safe. The creation and dissemination of quality information is no less valuable than roads and security, and no less prone to market failures. Public Television should be funded now more than ever, commensurate with the demonstrably high quality content it provides, and to make up for the increasingly dismal performance of corporate news outlets.
Public Television does a lot of good, for very little money. That’s the real reason conservatives hate it – and the same reason why they hate social security and medicare, and are terrified of the ACA – it works!
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