Congress created public broadcasting to address the educational, cultural and informational needs of the country, especially unserved and underserved communities. For decades, public media and its 1,300 locally owned and operated public radio and television stations have fulfilled that mission with content and services that educate, inform, inspire, entertain and promote enlightened citizenship. With help from CPB-funded investments in technology, those stations provide 99 percent of the American population with content and services—on air, online and in their community.
The cable networks that once aspired to fill the arts, entertainment and civics niches have retreated into the familiar wasteland of commercial television, with The Learning Channel’s Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, A&E’s Steven Segal: Lawman, Bravo’s The Real Housewives of New Jersey, and the History Channel’s UFO Hunters. It’s little wonder that Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley calls it the “No History Channel” or that A&E changed its name from the Arts & Entertainment Network. It’s also little wonder that over the course of a year 91 percent of all U.S. television households escape from that wasteland to tune in to their local PBS station. Moreover, parents know that children’s shows on commercial broadcast and cable networks are created to sell cereal whereas shows on PBS Kids are designed to “sell” literacy and math skills. This is why more than 80 percent of all children between the ages of 2 and 8 watch public television: to master the building blocks of education and citizenship.
Public media provides content that entertains through literary, visual, interactive and performing arts at the community, national and international levels. Ensuring that all Americans, no matter where they live or what their family income, can have a virtual front row seat at the opera, America’s greatest plays and musicals, access to the American storytelling of Ken Burns, the high-quality content of Masterpiece, the compelling work of independent filmmakers providing films such as Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity Worldwide and others that inspire and educate while entertaining. This exploration and education of American culture binds the nation in its shared history while celebrating a rich diversity of expression.
Each day, the American public receives an enduring return on the federal government investment, with dividends that are heard, seen, read and experienced in public media broadcasts, apps, podcasts and online—all for the cost of about a dime per person per month. One of the wealthiest nations on earth, America has the seventh-largest GDP per capita in the world. Yet it allots just one one-hundredth of 1 percent of its federal budget to public media. Canadians and Australians pay about eight times more per capita, the French and Japanese 14 times more, Britons 24 times more and Germans 41 times more. America’s relatively tiny amount of government support is due to this nation’s unique and highly successful public-private partnership that generates five dollars in nonfederal funding for every one dollar of federal investment.
America’s largest classroom
There’s a reason public television is called “America’s largest classroom.” Americans value public media stations as trusted partners committed to ensuring that all people, in every state and from every economic level, continue to have access to lifelong learning for free—and commercial free. America’s public media stations work with teachers to serve students at every level of the educational system, from pre-K to postgraduate. From “Ready To Learn” to the “American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen” initiative, public media’s content and services provide a safe place where children can learn and adults of every economic level can have the opportunity to go on to higher learning and develop to their fullest potential.
Building on public media’s proven and significant results in improving reading and math skills for elementary school students—particularly those who were furthest behind—in 2011, CPB launched a national initiative to help communities nationwide tackle the high-school dropout crisis.
Every year, more than 1.3 million students fail to graduate from high school on time, an epidemic that costs the American economy dearly through the loss of higher wages that those students would have earned as graduates, as well as the tax revenues that governments must forgo and the additional costs that Americans incur from increased crime and illness. Over the course of their lifetimes, the students who failed to graduate on time in 2011 alone could cost the American economy hundreds of billions of dollars.
“American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen” is a CPB-funded initiative that helps at-risk students remain on the path to graduation and future success. CPB is supporting the work of stations in key dropout epicenters across 30 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico to raise awareness and share innovative solutions to this crisis across multiple platforms: broadcast, Internet and mobile phone.
These 68 stations and their more-than-800 national and community-based partners are:
- Empowering parents with knowledge and tools to help keep their children on track to graduation;
- Helping students develop new or advanced skills in digital media production, problem solving, collaboration and critical thinking and analysis; connecting students with mentors through internships, career fairs and volunteer fairs;
- Producing, airing and streaming local content and public service announcements;
- Hosting town halls, business leader meetings and community forums and screenings;
- Providing more than 700 curriculum resources for teachers and parents on AmericanGraduate.org; and
- Producing local news and public affairs reporting that communicates their community’s unique challenges and customized solutions.
For example, stations serving Las Vegas and the Norfolk/Hampton Roads region of southeastern Virginia developed virtual academies with high-quality, standards-based courses for high school completion. The Virtual High School operated by Vegas PBS had 8,900 public enrollments in 2010–2011 and a passing rate of 75 percent, higher than the district average.
“American Graduate” is a united effort across the country and across public media. Leveraging the trust and convening power of local stations, CPB partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to host and broadcast teacher town halls that provide teachers with a voice about the challenges their students face in the classroom and in the community, as well as to offer solutions to the crisis. In addition to local action by stations in their communities, there has been significant work done by national producers to increase understanding of the crisis, including PBS NewsHour, Tavis Smiley, StoryCorps, NPR, Roadtrip Nation, Ideas in Action with Jim Glassman and others.
Public media’s editorial integrity
Public media has a commitment to inform through trusted news and prize-winning journalism that goes beyond the sound bite. Dedicated public broadcast journalists are in harm’s way throughout the world, covering international events for a fraction of what they could earn in the commercial market. Concurrently, seasoned public radio and television reporters are providing in-depth coverage of local issues of importance to their communities at a time when newspapers are foundering and information through the Internet is neither fact-checked nor unbiased. Their trusted coverage, from school boards to events around the globe, coupled with public media’s local and national current events programming, helps to build our civil society by providing a forum where ideas and viewpoints can be exchanged, explored and discussed—in a manner that is respectful, civil, nonpartisan, in depth and uninterrupted.
In 2010, CPB funded the “Editorial Integrity for Public Media” initiative to safeguard that trust, especially in this digital era of evolving technologies of online, wireless and mobile services that present challenges with respect to shared editorial standards and the public’s expectations for balance and independence. Moreover, with public broadcasters encountering evolving expectations from donors, corporate sponsors, philanthropy and other stakeholders, an updated and unified code of standards for transparency and accountability was needed.
During 2011, the Editorial Integrity project’s 20-member steering committee, with strong input from public television and radio stations, drafted a Code of Editorial Integrity that sets forth principles, policies and practices addressing, among other issues, guidelines for local policies, journalistic accuracy and integrity, transparency in program selection and content creation, transparency in fundraising and standards in partnerships and collaborations. Rather than a uniform set of rulesdictated nationwide, the code is a living document that broadcast stations and other public media organizations can adapt and apply in ways that reflect shared values and address their unique circumstances.
Using technology for greater efficiencies
For the last several years, as Americans looked at ways to cope with a faltering economy, CPB identified ways to help stations innovate, collaborate and, in some cases, consolidate the services they offer in response to the increased needs of their communities. Strategic CPB investments in 2010–2011 fueled innovation in infrastructure models that allowed stations to save money, operate more efficiently and spend more time and resources on content and services for their communities.
One model that has great potential for cost savings is the centralization of multiple master-control facilities. (Master control is the technical hub of a broadcast operation.) During the last year, CPB has worked with eight stations in New York to consolidate their facilities into one regional master-control facility. Specifically, CPB underwrote the development of a technology plan, a design for organizational structure and the analysis of potential savings, and made an initial investment in equipment for the facility. The New York Association of Public Broadcasting Stations created an operating model that will offer stations throughout the country savings of millions of dollars if they replicate this model.
More recently, Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) created an alternate model that others have since followed when it saved an estimated $300,000 a year by outsourcing its master-control operations to a Georgia-based firm. Stations in other states have saved funds as well through outsourcing.
CPB is also working with PBS, NPR, American Public Media, Public Radio International and PRX (the Public Radio Exchange) to develop what is essentially an interconnection system for the digital age. The Public Media Platform will create a shared content inventory and a common data standard that will allow all public media entities to exchange content easily and create new user applications. It will also reduce the need for redundant systems at national organizations and stations, thereby generating significant savings in operating and content-distribution expenses.
Finally, CPB used financial incentives to encourage grantees to increase operational efficiency by joining with other stations to share costs and improve service while maintaining universal access. A number of public radio stations have already acquired other stations or entered into long-term local marketing agreements for the operation of other stations, creating efficiencies in large and small markets.
An example is Western New York Public Broadcasting Association’s acquisition of WBFO-FM from the University at Buffalo. Executives and board members from both organizations explored ways to strengthen public radio in the region and make better use of donor and taxpayer funding. Another example is the Public Media Partnership in Louisville, Kentucky, which unified all production and administrative functions of three separately licensed radio stations. This operating structure allowed Louisville Public Media to align the programming schedules of the three stations and thus eliminate duplicate programming.
Despite the public consistently telling pollsters that public television and radio is their most trusted source for news, information, culture and the arts, and continuing education, there are those who question whether America should even have a public broadcasting system. In this economy, is even a relatively tiny one-hundredth of 1 percent of the federal budget a good investment? For four decades, this country’s leaders and citizens have answered with a resounding “Yes.”
For the ninth consecutive year, research nationwide has confirmed that taxpayers rank government funding of public media as an “excellent” use of tax dollars—second only to the U.S. military. Moreover, the American public views PBS as the most trusted institution in America. Of all the commercial broadcasters and cable networks, people cite PBS as the “most fair” source for news and public affairs programs. And they rank PBS Kids as the most educational TV/media brand, the safest destination for children to watch television or visit online, and the top provider of content that helps children build reading and math skills.
The public broadcasting system, with its unique combination of public and private investment, pursues the goal of promoting and enhancing democracy and civil society. Public broadcasting viewers and listeners are first and foremost citizens of the United States, and they have come to rely on public broadcasting to be informed and engaged on matters of importance to their community, their country and their lives. Any debate about the value of public broadcasting is fundamentally a debate about the value of an informed and engaged citizenry.
A diminished public broadcasting system would mean the end of an extraordinarily useful national teaching tool; the loss of the nation’s most trusted source of news and public affairs programs; the erosion of national memory, history, science exploration and exceptional culture; the compromise of a vital civil defense and emergency alert system; and the death of a federal investment that taxpayers consider the best use of tax dollars other than national defense.
Even though taxpayers overwhelmingly consider the relatively small federal investment of public broadcasting the second-best use of tax dollars, there are those who support the public broadcast system but believe that taxpayers are wrong to support it. Contributions and other nonfederal funding represent five dollars of every six dollars invested annually in public broadcasting. Those five dollars tell stations that the communities they serve consider their programs and services to be of utmost importance.
But it is the vital importance of that one dollar from the federal government—95 cents of which goes directly to support local stations and the programs and services they offer; only five cents of which goes to administration of funding programs and overhead—that cannot be underestimated. This investment is the foundation upon which stations raise at least six times the amount they receive from the federal budget.
Equally important, it provides crucial support to stations, particularly those serving rural, minority and other underserved communities that rely to a much greater degree on federal support and thus are most at risk from its loss. In the absence of the federal appropriation, a domino effect will first result in the collapse of those stations most at risk, and then a cascading debilitating effect on remaining stations and national programming services.
In conclusion, whether by in-depth news and public affairs programming on the local, state, national and international level; superior commercial-free children’s programming; formal and informal educational instruction for citizens of all ages; or inspiring arts and cultural content, the returns for taxpayers on their investment are exponential.
Our country's public broadcasting system is uniquely American, and its relevance is validated by the private support it receives in funding, respect and confidence. In tax dollars gladly given and surveys enthusiastically responded to, Americans validate, support and defend public broadcasting’s vital and irreplaceable service. Yes, serious challenges lie ahead, but so too do the opportunities to make public broadcasting an even more beneficial service to the American people, who have treasured it for generations.