Thursday, February 24, 2011


It is a proven fact that the business model that originally justified taxpayer support of Public Television has changed over the years, and it is now time for Congress to stop appropriating about $430 million per year.

Any discussion of Public Television government funding is a highly emotional issue that has gone on since the founding of PBS in October 1970. At that time the business model that supported the operation of television stations was founded on a small number of stations, which in most cases consisted of 4 stations in medium and large markets. The commercial stations operated by selling commercial time locally, regionally, and nationally. The stations with a network affiliation also secured revenue from their contracts.

At that time most markets were granted one license by the Federal Communications Commission for a non-commercial station (PBS) that would receive federal support, because they did not air paid commercials. Programs were produced by the PBS family of stations and in addition educational classes were offered. Public broadcasting operated on funds granted by the government, viewer membership solicitation, state and city grants, and support of local business… but no commercials.

Since that time the business model of television has dramatically changed. We now have cable and literally hundreds of channels in most television markets. The commercial stations now secure funding by local, regional and national commercial sales, and if they are network affiliated they now are paying their network for programs. Some revenue is secured from re-transmission fees from the cable systems that carry the station programming. The loss of network revenue was significant.

There are now 354 PBS stations serving 210 television markets in the US. (Yes, if you do the math there is more than one PBS station in over 140 markets.) PBS has evolved over the years and now carries veiled commercials while also receiving retransmission fees. By veiled ads, I mean more than a company logo and a voice over with a “thank you for support.” Now, for instance, company tag lines and locations are included and can go on for a traditional commercial length.

Additionally, PBS competes with commercial stations to buy syndicated programming; driving up the price of program costs for all TV stations and cable as well.

In the meantime, PBS continues to secure grants from federal, state and local governments, viewer memberships, contributions from local businesses, and the auction fund drives (avenues unavailable to commercial stations). Thus their business model is dramatically different and they are no longer non-commercial or commercial free.

Public Television has had a free ride for many years, and considering the economic problems facing the country, they should share in the realities of life in 2011. The days of government funding can no longer be justified and PBS should and must adapt or perish just like any other business operating in today’s atmosphere.

PBS does offer important television programs, but they no longer should be funded by taxpayer money. Their audiences have never been significant and their audience has always been limited to a small select segment of the total viewing audience. Mary Pruess, President and General Manager of my local PBS station, WNIT, said, “What is at stake is the foundation of funding for all of the public broadcasting system.” I believe that statement is invalid in view of the fact that Public Television is now a commercial entity with several significant new revenue streams.

Public Broadcasting “costs each taxpaying citizen $1.35 per year” says Pruess. What is the justification for every single American being obligated to contribute $1.35 per year for PBS?

Public TV is wonderful, but it must stand on its own two feet just like any other business. Feeding at the public trough must come to an end or the ultimate result will be financial disaster for everyone.

I say, “Adapt or perish, PBS.” Commercial television stations are in the midst of the lesson; time for Public TV to man up.


No comments: