American Public: PBS and the the U.S. public broadcasting that never was

PBS, launched in 1970, continues to be the largest public program provider in the United States. It was created “not to sell products,” but to “enhance citizenship and public service,” to serve as “a forum for debate and controversy,” and provide a “voice for groups in the community that may otherwise go unheard.” 

Typically, public broadcasting is supposed to serve as an objective, independent source of information and entertainment. Free from corporate bonds and interests and funded by the government or nonprofits, the goal of public broadcasting is not to make money, but to allow the public access to content created by people who value the content itself over its monetary worth.

But today, PBS as a news source fails to provide content that is objective, representative of the American public, or even separate from corporate influence. A study by FAIR found that PBS’s flagship news show, Newshour, which claims to be “inclusive of all perspectives,” in fact has little objectivity or independence.

Among the most prominent findings:

  • Public interest groups accounted for just 4 percent of total sources.  Current and former government and military officials totaled 50 percent of all sources.
  • Male sources outnumbered women by more than 4-to-1.
  • People of color made up only 15 percent of U.S. sources.
  • Among partisan sources, Republicans outnumbered Democrats on the NewsHour by 2-to-1 (66 percent vs. 33 percent).
  • At a time when a large proportion of the U.S. public already favored withdrawal from Iraq, “stay the course” sources outnumbered pro-withdrawal sources more than 5-to-1.
  • Segments on Hurricane Katrina accounted for less than 10 percent of all sources, but provided nearly half (46 percent) of all African-American sources during the study period.

What happened to the programming like Public Broadcasting Laboratory that existed during the channel’s heyday? The problem, simply, is that unlike other countries that provide truly successful public broadcasting sources, like Britain’s BBC, the American public broadcasting is and always has been, some form of a joke.

BBC, for example, operates under a royal charter that mandates that all households in the country pay an annual television licensing fee. Since its inception, BBC has had a steady stream of income. It doesn’t need to operate in a way that draws donors or contributors.

Meanwhile, PBS, started out of Boston through WGBH-TV as the “Corporation for Public Broadcasting.” Although it is a nonprofit broadcasting service, it still receives its funding – around 60% of it – from private membership donations and grants. In terms of government funding, all public radio and television stations received only $445 million in 2012, or about 0.014% of the federal budget. These funds were equivalent to 15% of PBS funds.

PBS needs donors to survive, and it needs to attract them in any way possible. Consider how its early stations, with little government funding or private donations, literally broadcast out of the backseat of a station wagon. With 354 member stations in PBS, the corporation’s slice of the $445 million in donations is not nearly enough to survive on. So PBS, unlike BBC, must stoop to provide broadcasting that gets viewers.

This is not the way public broadcasting should be run. It is not truly “public” if half of its funding must come from private sources. It cannot stay open and objective if its existence cannot be guaranteed. Without substantially increased government funding, PBS runs the risk of becoming privatized, like The Learning Channel did in 1980. It will be a sad day when Bill Moyers has been replaced by Honey Boo Boo.


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