In contrast to commercial broadcast and cable media, which are increasingly centralized in both ownership and programming, the public broadcasting system remains very decentralized. Every public broadcasting outlet is under local control or ownership; increasingly, they are the only locally-owned-and-operated media outlets in some communities. Only a handful of public broadcast licensees operate stations in more than a single state. With local governing boards, community advisors, volunteers, and partnerships with local organizations, stations work to provide programs and services responsive to the needs of their communities. Each local station maintains sole authority and responsibility for selecting, presenting, and scheduling the programs that it airs.
Congress placed control of programming with local stations rather than CPB. It ensured this autonomy by prohibiting CPB from owning or operating any television or radio station, system, or network, and barring it from producing, scheduling, or disseminating programs to the public.
Instead, CPB operates within congressionally prescribed guidelines to provide financial support and services to nearly 600 licensees operating nearly 1,400 television and radio stations that deliver educational services and programming to virtually every household in the country. Congress has mandated that more than two-thirds of CPB's appropriation be allocated for direct station support. Our obligation to Congress and the American people is to ensure that this money is spent wisely and efficiently in support of balanced and objective programming. Our obligation to stations is to insulate them from the political process, and to ensure that their receipt of federal support in no way interferes with their ability to operate as free and independent broadcasters, as prescribed by law.
In addition to our financial support of stations, CPB complies with the statutory requirement of providing funds to producing entities and independent producers to help them develop a wide range of programming that is then made available to local stations. As encouraged by Congress, CPB provides direct program support to PBS through a high-profile national program service, which includes series such as Nova, American Experience, Sesame Street, and The PBS NewsHour. CPB generally provides little direct program support to NPR, which competes with other producers for CPB radio program funds on a program-by-program basis. CPB also provides programming dollars to entities such as the Independent Television Service (ITVS), five separate entities collectively known as the national minority program consortia, and many independent producers and producing organizations, all of which are entirely independent of CPB. This enables stations to acquire programming independently from a wide variety of sources.
Along with programs that they produce themselves, public television stations choose their programs from the following sources, among others:
- PBS, which provides more than 1,200 hours a year of children's, primetime, educational, and cultural programming from which its member stations can choose. This includes programming produced by stations such as WGBH, WETA, and WNET.
- American Public Television, which acquires programs that may be purchased by stations on a title-by-title basis. APT also maintains the largest source of free programming available to U.S. public television stations.
- The Independent Television Service (ITVS), which funds, distributes and promotes independently produced television programs.
- The National Educational Telecommunications Association (NETA), which annually distributes about 2,000 hours of programming produced by public television stations, other entities and independent producers via satellite to stations nationwide.
Public radio stations also get their programming from a wide variety of sources:
- Each station typically produces nearly 40 percent of its own programming.
- Nearly a quarter is from NPR, including news and information, cultural and entertainment programming.
- More than 35 percent is obtained from Public Radio International (PRI), American Public Media, and other producers and distributors, including programs obtained directly from independent producers and other public radio stations.
Congress determined a statutory formula for allocating CPB's federal appropriation, including funds for programming. Applying this formula, CPB in FY 2011 budgeted $100.5 million from the appropriation for programming, $71.8 million for television and $28.7 million for radio.