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Funding public media: How the US compares to the rest of the world

With this week’s NPR news has renewing the debate about de-funding public broadcasting, it’s worth highlighting a recent report (pdf) that puts our public broadcasting system into perspective when compared with 14 countries around the world.

Though cutting public broadcasting appropriations to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting would essentially limit the “public” nature of our system by cutting out the government, it’s important to remember that most public radio stations receive only about 10 percent of their money from CPB. For many public radio stations, though, if it comes to it, the loss of this federal money may make it all the harder to sustain local programming — and local newsgathering — if it cannot be found elsewhere.

Taking a look at the report, compiled by Rodney Benson and Matthew Powers of NYU’s Department of Media, Culture and Communication, which includes a close breakdown of the public service models of Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Japan, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and the UK.

Some key findings:

• US per capita spending on public broadcasting is $4.
• Research fairly consistently shows that public television, simply put, makes for better quality news.
• As a corollary, public service television, at least in Denmark, Finland, the UK, and the US, makes people better informed and encourages higher levels of news consumption.
• The most trusted public broadcasters are those that are perceived as closest to the public, and most distant from the government and advertisers.
• While some countries play around with appropriations, many of these are for multi-year periods, creating some insulation from political pressure. And other countries, like the UK, Japan, and the Netherlands, rely primarily on license fees.
• Independent buffers between governments and the broadcasters help keep the government out of the content.
• Public broadcasters are all over the board when it comes to Internet transitions. Some are trying to figure out how to raise the money to make things more innovative, while others, like the BBC, are pioneers.
• Government newspaper subsidies are alive and well, and have been for a long time — many since the 1970s. They help keep afloat struggling newspapers and create a diversity of opinion. In some cases, they are even sponsoring innovation online. They exist in Belgium, Finland, France, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden.
• Public broadcasters, even in Europe, are facing pressure from commercial broadcasting — and hedge between trying to fulfill public service missions and compete by appealing to large audiences.
• It could be a lot worse.

In New Zealand, in 1989, the public broadcaster TVNZ lost all its funding and was actually required to produce dividends to pay back to the national treasury. Though some public funding has been restored, pretty much all New Zealand has is New Zealand on Air, a public media agency that gives out public funding to commercial and non-commercial channels. New Zealand has managed to keep Radio New Zealand publicly funded.

Some recommendations the report includes:

• Just because we aren’t Europe doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to have strong public broadcasting.
• Make appropriations for multi-year arrangements, or better yet, establish a trust for public broadcasting.
• As the authors note: “The question is not if government should be involved, but how, and that is a question that demands an in-depth conversation, not a shouting match.”

The report makes a claim worth interrogating, though: the idea that few outlets providing public interest programming, commercial or non-commercial, reach a broad public audience. Just to take issue with that, the evening news figures — in total viewership — for February 21, 2011 look something like this:

NBC: 9,830,000
ABC: 8,400,000
CBS: 6,450,000

But NPR’s weekly reach on Morning Edition is 14 million and 13 million for All Things Considered. So it may be that more public interest news, and public service news, is reaching more people than we think. And the audience has continued to grow.

Benson and Powers are not alone in suggesting a public trust for news; they were joined by a chorus of reports last year looking for sustainability for news. But the question is: Could such a trust be established at a time of political discord when the very viability of the concept of publicly funded media is on the table?

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  • Rodney Benson


    Great summary and critique of our report!

    As for our claim that U.S. public service oriented media don’t reach that many people – of course, it’s in comparative terms.

    BBC and other major public broadcasters in Europe have audience shares of 1/3 to over 1/2. That’s reaching a lot of people!

    And while some of the U.S. network news content is solid reporting, a lot of it isn’t. The network news shows are shorter (less than 20 minutes after you take out the commercials) and they’re aired at a time when a lot of people aren’t home – compared to the prime time broadcasts in Europe. And as the research you cite shows, the quality of U.S. commercial network TV is lower than that of public TV newscasts in the countries we studied.

    Even if your U.S. network and public radio raw audience figures look impressive, the fact is that most people in this country get their news from local TV newscasts, which have little to no substantial reporting on government or international affairs.

    So I would stand by our position that we could do a lot more in this country to increase the supply of high quality news that is available to everyone – not just those who can afford subscriptions or pay wall fees to access the New York Times, etc.

    Rodney Benson

  • Josh Stearns

    Nikki – thanks for this great post, and for highlighting the NZ example, it’s a useful story to consider right now.

    It’s worth noting that the $4 number in your first bullet is total spending on public media – including foundation grants, individual donations, federal dollars and corporate underwriting. The per capita cost from just tax dollars is actually just under $1.50.

    When we published this report we asked a range of media scholars from around the world for the critiques and feedback – see their comments and download the full report here:

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  • Scott Hunter

    We have always subsidized the news industry because it’s a good idea, one that was revolutionary in the 1700s.

    Let us not lose sight of our history entirely. The current discussion stems from the elevation in our culture of The Market to godlike status and from an increasingly libertarian bent to the national disposition. Hence government subsidy of anything is deemed improper and even counterproductive in a world where, if the free market were only given its proper role, all would be well.

    More visionary leaders, fortunately, prevailed early in our history, when George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and others advocated for the cheap distribution of periodicals so that the industry would help inform the electorate. The first major postal law in 1792 decreed, effectively, that newspapers would be charged only a sixth of what it cost to deliver a letter.

    Today, electronic media are also subsidized in the interest of educating the public. But where privately owned electronic media focus on delivering what The Market demands, throwing itself with all the might it can muster into uncovering the pathos of every pathetic celebrity, public broadcasting holds up a higher standard and pushes the news industry into higher quality.

    That leads to a better informed electorate, not only directly through consuming NPR and PBS broadcasts, but by holding up that standard to help encourage other media toward excellence.

  • Estfar

    With Republican lunatics running around the halls of Congress and the Senate and with spineless Democratic leadership we currently have in both houses, it is up to the 13-plus million of
    listeners to mobilize and let your voices be heard. Many people in this country actually believe that the majority of us are hooked on Fox News. I would not be surprised to learn that Murdoch’s mouth piece is a favorite among a predominantly unsophisticated lot who are angry at anything they don’t understand. those of us sickened by what these Republicans are attempting to dismantle, should start demonstrating a bit more resistance. Call their offices and let your voices be heard. Fill their inboxes with your emails and fill their mailboxes with your complaints. Let them know we are not a silent minority. stop them from turning us all into their type of Americans.

  • Peter Herford

    The TV and radio ratings are apples and oranges. The TV ratings indicate nightly viewers. NPR’s “weekly radio reach” is “cume” a cumulative measure of all the listeners who tuned into Morning Edition or All Things Considered for at least five minutes for the entire week. The daily number is 2.8 million for Morning Edition if you divide the weekly by 5. There is no indication whether the “cume” is based on 7 days or 5. If it is a 7 day cume the daily listenership is even less.

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