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March 16, 2017, 1:20 p.m.
Business Models

This is what could happen if Donald Trump’s plan to eliminate funding for public broadcasting is enacted

“Ultimately, the system itself would be at serious risk of collapse.”

President Trump on Thursday released his administration’s first budget blueprint, which among other cuts proposes eliminating all federal funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

CPB has an annual budget of $445 million that it uses to support PBS, NPR, and local public broadcasters across the United States, and cuts to it and other agencies are being proposed to offset, among other things, Trump’s planned $54 billion increase in defense spending. (The Washington Post reported that the requested boost in Pentagon funding would fund CPB at its current levels for the next 121 years.)

“Viewers and listeners appreciate that public media is non-commercial and available for free to all Americans,” CPB president and CEO Patricia Harrison said in a statement Thursday. “We will work with the new Administration and Congress in raising awareness that elimination of federal funding to CPB begins the collapse of the public media system itself and the end of this essential national service.”

There’s still a long way to go before the budget is finalized — it’s Congress that passes the budget, and it’s under no obligation to take up Trump’s priorities — and we don’t know yet how CPB’s funding will ultimately be affected. But we do have some sense of what the public broadcasting system might look like if the budget passed as Trump has proposed it.

A 2012 report by consulting firm Booz & Company, commissioned by CPB, forecast what would happen if the system lost all its federal funding. It concluded that “there is simply no substitute for the federal investment to accomplish the public service mission that Congress has assigned to public broadcasters and that the American people overwhelmingly support.”

The funding cuts would affect the system at multiple levels, the study found. Many of the larger entities — such as Boston’s WGBH, NPR, and American Public Media — “would be forced to cut already lean production budgets,” cutting back or raising prices for local stations that want to air the material.

“These outcomes are likely to happen in some combination, with negative consequences for the quantity and quality of public broadcasting content,” the study’s authors said. “That, in turn, would impact the remaining stations, further undermining their ability to attract viewers, listeners, and support.”

More than 70 percent of CPB’s appropriation is distributed to local stations, most of them in small markets or rural areas. These stations are heavily dependent on federal funding because they can’t generate enough revenue through pledge drives or other means to keep them going. “In a world where Congress no longer provides funding for public broadcasting stations, the public television and radio stations (and the related national organizations) would ultimately not be able to raise the funds necessary to replace the federal appropriation,” the report said.

The 2012 report estimated that within three years of losing federal funding, 76 public radio stations and 54 public TV stations would be at “high risk of simply closing.” Of the radio stations it identified, 47 serve rural communities, 46 were the only public radio station available in their market, and 10 were the only broadcasters of any medium in their market. If the 54 TV stations went off the air, the report estimated that more than 12 million viewers would lose their ability to watch over-the-air public television:

Ultimately, the system itself would be at serious risk of collapse. Even if it would survive, the public broadcasting system in the United States would suffer with reduced numbers of stations resulting in gaps in service, and the remaining stations would be impoverished. This would dangerously impair public broadcasting‘s ability to help create and maintain the educated and informed citizenry that is required for a healthy democracy and civil society.

While it remains to be seen whether CPB’s federal funding will be eliminated, a proposed similar loss of state funding is already impacting at least one public broadcasting system.

West Virginia Governor Jim Justice has proposed eliminating state funding to West Virginia Public Broadcasting. WVPB is planning to lay off 15 staffers, more than 20 percent of its staff, Current reported this month. Eliminating funding for WVPB would save the state $4.5 million. (It has a budget deficit of $500 million.)

2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the Public Broadcasting Act, the legislation signed by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967 that established CPB and the modern American public broadcasting system.

The groundwork for the act was the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, whose report established the foundation for the legislation and explained the importance of public broadcasting:

Public Television programming can deepen a sense of community in local life. It should show us our community as it really is. It should be a forum for debate and controversy. It should bring into the home meetings, now generally untelevised, where major public decisions are hammered out, and occasions where people of the community express their hopes, their protests, their enthusiasms, and their will. It should provide a voice for groups in the community that may otherwise be unheard.

Public Television programs can help us see America whole, in all its diversity. To a degree unequaled by any other medium, Public Television should be a mirror of the American Style. It should remind us of our heritage and enliven our traditions. Its programs should draw on the full range of emotion and mood, from the comic to the tragic, that we know in American life. It should help us look at our achievements and difficulties, at our conflicts and agreements, at our problems, and at the far reach of our possibilities. Public Television programs should help us know what it is to be many in one, to have growing maturity in our sense of ourselves as a people.

The authors of the report, however, knew that funding would be an issue and took steps to try and protect the corporation from political maneuvers like Trump’s plan. The Carnegie Commission proposed creating a tax on every new television set purchase that would fund the corporation and keep it out of the annual budgetary process.

“ We felt that the problem here was a problem of principle: how one insulated this — a corporation for public television — from the annual budgetary review both on the part of the Congress and on the part of the executive branch,” commission chair James R. Killian Jr. said in a 1967 interview. “And it seemed to us that a trust fund into which funds would flow from a fixed tax, such as the excise tax, was the best way of giving this protection and insulation. If someone comes up with an invention that does this thing, that meets this requirement equally well, other than the excise tax, I think we would all be very happy about it.”

POSTED     March 16, 2017, 1:20 p.m.
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