Issue 60, Winter 2005/2006


The actual cost of public broadcasting is minuscule in comparison with other public activities. In fiscal 1995 the total federal operating budget for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is $286 million, while $200 million yearly is allocated to military bands. The CPB’s $286 million is about one-fiftieth of 1 percent of the federal budget (the defense budget takes up 16.6 percent). The federal subsidy of CPB comes to less than one tax dollar per citizen; the subsidy for Japan’s public broadcasting system is 20 times as much.

Gingrich knows all this. Washington insiders think Gingrich is using the public broadcasting issue to gain leverage with disaffected working-class whites. He is pushing hot-button terms like “self-selected elites,” “discredited New Deal spenders,” “the intelligentsia,” “defunct social engineers.”

Gingrich is entitled to his views. But others are entitled to theirs as well. And there’s the rub. How can we discuss all sides of issues if there is no media platform available for free and open—and sometimes disturbing—discussion? The public broadcasting issue transcends the liberal-conservative controversy. What is at stake is whether our society intends to maintain a reasonable amount of open and robust debate about issues of consequence.

If we cut off public broadcasting, we will lose one of the few platforms devoted by its very nature to informing, entertaining and enlarging horizons, independent of economic or political control. And consider what would happen, for example, in the lives of children, especially ghetto children, if PBS were eliminated. There would be no Sesame Street, Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?, Reading Rainbow or Mr. Rogers — all now available to every home, regardless of ability to pay.

There is one other factor of which most people are, thus far, unaware. A number of recent technological breakthroughs, through digitalized compression techniques, will at some point allow every television station to offer six or seven channels in the spectrum space now occupied by a single one. Very soon every TV channel — including the PBS stations — will increase enormously in value. In March the FCC auctioned off a few of its newer and far less valuable high-frequency channels for mobile telephones and realized a mind-boggling $7.7 billion. In light of that sale its reasonable to conclude that if the FCC decides to auction off some or parts of existing TV frequencies, the value of public broadcastings 351 TV channels could be worth countless billions.

Gingrich’s response is the attempt to privatize public broadcasting. This would please his constituency, get rid of those irritating noncommercial news and information programs, and complete the monopoly of private networks, resulting in a total commercialization of information. Larry Pressler, Gingrich’s Senate colleague, has announced a bill to sell the entire public broadcasting system over a three-year period. Since even now owning a commercial TV channel is like having a license to print money, there are plenty of prospective buyers. Rupert Murdoch needs stations to fill out his Fox Network. Jamie Kellner, the head of Warner Brothers, has announced that he wants to buy time on PBS stations to air his programs. Owning the stations outright would be much better.

Interestingly, Gingrich never challenges the huge subsidies that taxpayers already provide private radio and TV. Commercial stations pay absolutely nothing for their federally protected frequency assignments. And Congress has decreed that corporate advertising on radio and TV is a fully deductible business expense, which means that every advertising dollar costs a company about 30 cents.

Fortunately, the public senses public broadcasting’s importance. A poll in late January showed that 84 percent want federal funding for public broadcasting mainporaed or increased (80 percent of Republicans, 86 percent of independents and 90 percent of Democrats). And last year 6.8 million Americans gave some $390 million of their own cash to their public station — more than the total federal subsidy.

There are ways to solve the funding crisis without adding to the federal deficit. One solution would be to dedicate to public broadcasting just 10 percent of the federal take from those high-frequency auctions; from the one auction held so far, the sum would be $770 million — more than twice the annual federal subsidy. Another solution would be to charge a modest fee for broadcast licenses (we pay a fee for every other license); charging less than 1 percent on earnings would provide millions for PBS and NPR and only modestly reduce broadcasting profits.

Yet another strategy would be to reduce the tax write-off for advertising; a 20 percent reduction of that corporate bonanza could produce more than $4 billion annually for public broadcasting. And the original idea of a 5 percent levy on TV sets would collect about $450 million a year. But these strategies have very little hope of being realized, largely because the very media which could generate public support for them are almost totally controlled by commercial interests which will see to it that the public never receives this message.

Reinhold Niebuhr told us that we must know what is going on before considering what we ought to do. But how shall we know without a messenger? Because public broadcasting is one of society’s best hopes for disseminating information and penetrating the clouds of commercial obscurantism, support from every political quarter should rally behind our public system.