A recent article in InfoTech & Telecom News by Loren Heal examines Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s decision to cut a further 16 percent of the state’s public broadcasting budget, bringing his total cuts since 2010 to roughly 25 percent.
Such cuts have been commonplace in recent months. In Maine, cuts of as much as 19% are under consideration, New Hampshire faced 30% budget cuts, and Florida Gov. Rick Scott cut the state’s $4.5 million broadcasting budget.
Yesterday however, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey initiated a 5 year agreement which hands production of the state’s television network over to the private sector. Additionally, the state will sell its radio licenses to neighboring states for nearly $5 million. Governor Christe’s actions should be welcomed; removing government from the broadcast world addresses the state’s budgetary concerns (among other things). The Star-Ledger reports:
“We need to have robust New Jersey public broadcasting, but we need to have it in a way that is not continuing to cost the state taxpayers and can be perceived as truly independent from state government,” Christie said. The deal will save the state about $11 million a year, according to the Department of the Treasury.
Talk of such cuts is no new thing even at the national level, but even in the wake of the recent cutbacks, it is intriguing that objection is relatively little (or at least quiet). Perhaps it is because the logic of these cuts is unavoidable; the idea of federally-backed news outlets is one that should have gone out of style long ago.
The age-old argument holds true: if the Food Channel, the Discovery Channel, the History Channel and a myriad of radio stations have to compete to stay in operation, why should NPR and PBS have the advantage of public funding?
In a historical context, the 1967 creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was the result of the domination of the media by several large media outlets, an age where diversity in broadcasting was nowhere near what it is today.
The public’s scrutiny of the media during the post-Vietnam period drove this quest for increases in quality and educational value (a quest that no doubt continues today on MTV and VH1). The internet and cable television have allowed for an exponential increase in the diversity of broadcasting, and as such, a government-funded media outlet tasked with providing quality program simply becomes repetitive.
In terms of national funding, the CPB has needed greater and greater amounts of government money in recent years; $340 million 2001, $420 million in 2011, and a proposed $451 for next year. In a time of nationwide belt-tightening, it is surprising that national cuts haven’t been initiated on a large scale.
Public programs are doing extraordinarily well; from consumer sales alone, “Sesame Street” made more than $211 million from 2003-2006. In 1993, “Barney” made more than $500 million, but has now evened out at an estimated $100 million. These revenues could be going towards public broadcasting, but are instead often lost to the “dishonest literal-mindedness of people in public broadcasting” exemplified by the infamous “Barneygate” scandal, according to Lawrence Jarvik, a longtime critic of public broadcasting.
Though the goals of many legislators like Governor Christie are to completely eliminate funding for public broadcasting, the recent cuts will still allow the public media to function. The difference will be a greatly emphasis on private donors and sponsors, in essence, a gradual shift to the private sector.
Without a doubt, the initial use of government funding to ensure quality programming was important to the intellectual and cultural development of our nation. After all, it was public television that brought America William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line” and Milton Friedman’s “Free to Choose.” But those were the days before YouTube, blogging and local access cable, before anyone with political aspirations could effortlessly communicate with the world.
The removal (or at least increased separation) of the state from the media encourages the competitive spirit upon which the greatest American institutions have emerged. Whether it is a case of the yoke of government constraining emerging media outlets or taxpayer money propping up outlets that would not survive by themselves, it is reassuring that states are beginning to realize that public broadcasting has outgrown its context.
Let us hope that Governor Christie’s plan can serve as a model and a precedent for those concerned for the future and quality of America’s broadcast media.