Monday, March 20, 2017

Should Trump Cut Funding for PBS and NPR, and Does It Matter?

This past Thursday, the Trump administration released a preliminary 2018 budget proposal. The budget proposal covers discretionary spending only. To give some context, as of 2015, discretionary spending only accounted for 34 percent of the overall federal budget. This is not to say that discretionary spending is insignificant, but that it's not the whole piece of the pie. Getting back on topic, Trump is looking to cut most departments' spending while increasing defense spending. Part of the budget cuts (see coverage by Washington Post) includes defunding 19 government agencies. Part of that defunding is Trump wanting to cut $445 million of funding for the Corporation of Public Broadcasting (CPB). The CPB's funding most notably covers programming for the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR). PBS posted the meme below on its Facebook page recently, undoubtedly in anticipation for Trump's budget.

The first reason that PBS brings up is important, which is that it's not that expensive compared to other aspects of the budget. Looking at past appropriations to CPB, CPB received $445 million for 2016FY. With a $3.854 trillion federal government budget, funding for CPB amounted to 0.01 percent of the overall budget in 2016. One could hardly argue that funding PBS and NPR is driving the federal government's deficits. If cutting funding to CPB is part of a general trend towards government spending and regulation, then I am on board. Since he is merely allocating discretionary spending from non-defense to defense spending, then I have to wonder, especially since Trump's budget does not address entitlement or tax reform.

But if we are going to talk about budget, then it is equally fair to ask what percent of revenue in the PBS and NPR budgets comes from the federal government. The Washington Post estimates, 15 percent of PBS funding comes from the federal government, while that figure is 16 percent for NPR. The Congressional Research Service puts those figures even lower at 15 percent for public television and 10 percent for public radio (although rural areas are more reliant on this funding, although this concern can be mitigated be online streaming and access). Most funding for these programs comes from donations, not taxpayer dollars. If a budget eliminating federal funding for CPB were to pass, would CPB miss the extra cash? I'm sure they would. Would NPR and PBS have to re-adjust their business strategy to account for the lack of subsidies? Definitely. Would it mean the end of public TV and radio broadcasting? Doubtful. After all, it is possible to have public television without having the government step in. National Educational Television (NET), which was a public broadcasting service largely funded by the Ford Foundation, existed from 1952 until its merger with PBS. Prior to PBS, most noncommercial broadcasting was provided without broadcasting (see 2012 policy brief from the Cato Institute on case for defunding public broadcasting).

More to the point, why do we need to use taxpayer dollars to fund public broadcasting? I grew up watching Sesame Street, and I don't see why we would need to have government subsidies. At least when PBS started out in the 1960s, you really only had three main TV stations: ABS, CBS, and NBC. Now, there is so much more in the way of educational media. You have the Discovery Channel, the National Geographic Channel, amongst the other educational TV programming and educational online media out there (YouTube is but one example of innovative, disruptive technology, as well as online streaming that PBS and NPR make available). If public broadcasters cannot function in a multi-media world or find the ability to find a sustainable business model, what does that say about the quality of programming? If the programming continues to be great, then people will continue to make donations to PBS and NPR. If you can't make it without corporate sponsorship, then you might need to have commercials in your PBS programming to continue funding it.

None of this gets into the politics behind it. Much like I brought up about five years ago with government arts funding, I worry when the government has purse strings attached to subsidies. I don't need to invoke totalitarian examples to tell you that when government will have a say in content, and that the politics will follow. Remember when Juan Williams was fired from NPR back in 2010? This led to the ousting of then-CEO Vivian Schiller and executive Ellen Weiss, all for political reasons. This sort of control over limiting content and worrying about political backlash limits the potential of public broadcasting. Government funding doesn't hold PBS and NPR back just because of the politics, but also the inability to fully adapt to the evolving world of media (see video below).

To consolidate the main points, removing federal government funding would not mean the end of PBS and NPR. Even if it is financially more difficult, PBS and NPR should be able to survive just fine if they can maintain high quality in their programming. Furthermore, technology and development in the media industry make it more possible than ever for people to receive quality programming. Government funding comes with strings attached, makes it harder to compete in a constantly growing market, and thus more difficult for PBS and NPR to reach their full potential. In short, removing federal government funding would do everyone a favor, even those over at PBS and NPR.

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