About 70 percent of federal funding for public broadcasting goes to subsidize the operations of about 1400 local radio and television stations that primarily just rebroadcast national programs to their surrounding communities. The money isn’t primarily going to programming, which is why slogans like “Save Big Bird!” miss the point. If the Trump administration were to eliminate federal funding for public broadcasting, shows like Frontline, Nature, All Things Considered, and Fresh Air would survive. (As would America’s favorite 8-foot yellow canary, who recently migrated to HBO anyway.)
These 1400 stations—a vast, taxpayer-supported distribution network—are becoming increasingly unnecessary now that viewers like you can access NPR and PBS programming through the internet. As I argued in a recent video, ending federal funding is actually making it harder for PBS, NPR, and their affiliated content producers to fully embrace the Netflix-like approach to distribution that would best serve their audiences. Those who truly love Big Bird (and don’t want to see PBS further cannibalized by media organizations with more robust revenue models) should favor eliminating federal funding.
A common argument in favor of the status quo is that the $445 million devoted to public broadcasting amounts to just 0.01 percent of a $4 trillion federal budget. But just because something’s comparatively cheap doesn’t mean it’s worth buying year after year. Writing for the Nieman Journalism Lab, Nicholas Quah makes an even weaker case for maintaining government support for public broadcasting. “Epstein may well be right that pulling federal funding might lead to more efficient and innovative outcomes,” Quah writes in reference to my video. The problem is that “evolution necessarily yields losers:”
[The argument] never really fully reckons with and takes responsibility of the human cost of the resulting layoffs, the organizational complexity attached to structural transitions, and the simple fact that evolution necessarily yields losers — which is fine if we’re talking about markets distributing doorknobs, but totally sucks for markets distributing public goods like civic-oriented news, emergency signals, and supplemental forms of public education. Look, I’m as critical about the public broadcasting system’s predisposition for inertia and its many, many, many problems as the next guy, but I’d much rather see a transition to the future that takes place under conditions of strength and volition, not one under unnecessary duress and survival.
First of all, the local stations wouldn’t disappear all at once without federal funding. Revenue and cost-savings through the recent FCC spectrum sale could keep even poorer rural stations up and running for years. And yet this “transition to the future,” as Quah puts it, would eventually cause most to shut down, leading to some “duress.”
Quah should familiarize himself with one of capitalism’s foundational theories, Joseph Schumpeter’s concept of “creative destruction,” which holds that the market process that brings an ever rising standard of living inevitably leaves some people worse off.
The takeaway from Quah’s piece: The case for maintaining federal funding for public broadcasting is to save—not Big Bird—but the jobs of the people who work in the industry.