Public broadcasting's three-legged stool

I just commented on a post at Lost Remote (one of my favorite blogs) where they mentioned the NY Times article that has every public TV station manager’s panties in a bunch this week.

I didn’t comment on the validity of the Times articles ideas themselves — we can debate that separately (and perhaps I will). But I did try to provide a reality check on those folks saying we should de-fund PBS because it would be fine on its own.

It continues to surprise me how few people understand how public broadcasting is funded. To be fair, the funding systems are a nasty mess of spaghetti, so I can understand the confusion. But it’s not really that hard once you’ve been through it once or twice.


Perhaps I need to write a post that diagrams and explains how this works. A diagram, however messy, might help. But for now, here are the salient points on how funding works in the U.S. public broadcasting world:

  • The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) is an independent corporation setup by Congress to take in funding for public broadcasting services. They exist to foster pubcasting nationwide, in the “public interest.”
  • The CPB is “forward funded” by 2 years from the present, mostly to help insulate the CPB from intra-year funding threats over political issues.
  • The CPB has a politically-appointed (by the President) Board that oversees the company, but does not participate in day-to-day operations.
  • The CPB gives out money to public radio and TV stations on an annual basis, generally in the fall and the spring, to serve their local constituencies. These are called Community Service Grants (CSGs).
  • Local stations accept the CSGs, and then combine them with money raised from sponsorship (advertising lite) and membership (pledges, transactional sales) and anything else they can do to raise money. The size of their CSGs from the CPB are partially determined by their ability to raise money locally — the more you raise, the more CSG you’ll usually get.
  • The local stations then build and buy programming to put on the air. To build programming they have paid staff and volunteers in varying ratios. When buying programming, they turn to national networks or independent producers. NPR and PBS are the two obvious examples, but there are actually many more.
  • Separately, Congress funds other programs to support the technical infrastructure needed by local pubcasting stations (transmission gear). These might be earmarks in some cases, but mostly they are additional funds given either to the CPB or to other entities for distribution to local stations. These are one-time deals, but they are frequently repeated, depending upon needs. DTV conversion is an example of separate funding that helped most of the public TV stations make the leap.
  • PBS and NPR may get small grants from the CPB for small projects or for general services, but in the grand scheme of things, the funding streams from the CPB are minor. They could live without these direct funds.
  • Using the programming as an attractor, local stations then gather donations and sell sponsorships around the programming they broadcast.
  • PBS, NPR and other programming providers mostly make money from the “dues” paid by member stations. Dues are mostly calculated based on the size of the target market served by the station.
  • PBS turns around and spends their income on two main things: 1) their own technical infrastructure and the costs of distributing programming to member stations, and 2) buying the programming they run, from NOVA to Sesame Street to the News Hour and so on. Yes — PBS buys that programming, they don’t produce it. It’s typically produced by the largest stations in the network (e.g. WGBH, WNET, KQED, etc.), but also independent producers.
  • And round and round we go.

Quite a mess, huh?

This is why the notion of defunding the CPB would have a lot of unpredictable impacts, allocated unevenly across the system (such as it is). The smallest stations would go out of business almost overnight. The largest non-producing stations would likely be fine after a few cuts here and there. Stations in between would suffer a mixed bag of impacts. The impacts to PBS and NPR are unclear because their customer base would shrink by some significant — but unknown — factor.

Here’s the main idea, though… Public broadcasting in this country is funded in complex ways, and it’s really a combination of:

  • federal and sometimes state funding
  • local sponsorship (advertising lite) sales to corporations
  • local private donations (memberships)

This is why it’s often called a “public-private partnership.” It’s the proverbial three-legged stool at many stations. And we all know what happens when you remove one of the legs of that stool.

As to whether PBS is still “necessary” — that’s another discussion.