Defunding Public Broadcasting is a Ludicrous Idea

The argument that public broadcasting should not be publicly supported and should adopt a commercial-style funding model is straight up stupid.

Let’s start with America’s public television system. It’s too fragmented to survive this idea. Programming decisions don’t come from a centralized location; each station is essentially its own island. That allows programmers to schedule a variety of shows that will better serve their local audiences.

There are some inherent problems with this set up (such as the lack of national consistency in programming), and those would only be exacerbated by a commercialized funding scheme. Perhaps New York, L.A. and D.C. (and some other major metro areas) would have enough concentrated wealth within the viewing area to allow the station to go without federal dollars. That’s obviously not true for America’s smaller markets, where many public television stations have a hard enough time staying afloat as it is.

Let’s move to public radio. Local stations also get to make their own programming decisions, but public radio is helped by the fact that NPR provides a consistent stream of national programming that serves as a unifying agent. My local station is facing a double whammy, and it’s already making listeners aware of this situation. High Plains Public Radio is staring at the proposed federal funding cut in addition to the proposed elimination of all state support for public broadcasting in Kansas (where HPPR’s main offices are located.)

That’s 35% of its budget. Imagine taking a 35% salary cut. What kind of choices would you have to make?

One argument that proponents of budget cuts put forth is that the commercial market already provides similar types of programming. That one can be debunked pretty quickly. Show me where programs like Morning Edition, This American Life, and A Prairie Home Companion are being produced. Show me another Newshour.

You can’t. Not even on satellite radio.

And I haven’t even mentioned the high-quality, eclectic and localized music shows that are a hallmark of public radio. You won’t find that on broadcast radio anywhere else because — let’s face it — some of it isn’t commercially viable. (“Commercially viable” is a suspect term anyway because there’s a whole lot of worthless crap on commercial radio.)

And that gets to the core of this whole debate: the insinuation that if something isn’t commercially viable, then it doesn’t deserve public support. I’ll quote from an episode of M*A*S*H here — “Bull cookies!”

The commercial marketplace has proven over and over again that it’s not always the best arbiter of quality. Besides, America’s media system, which is based on the idea of capitalism, is in the minority as far as global media systems go. Many of these systems, especially in Europe, have healthy support from the public treasury.

It would be just as ludicrous sounding if we told our politicians to decline their publicly-funded salaries because they made a choice to leave private sector employment. They willingly rejected the capitalist system in favor of a job that depended on the public’s dole. But the government does — and should — support our elected officials because they’re performing a public service.

So is public broadcasting.

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