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The Truth about Public Media

by Elsie Garner

May 9,2010

These are exciting times for public service media. Exciting like whitewater rafting—definitely not for the weak of heart.

Television is not dead. Americans are watching more TV on a daily basis than ever before. What is changing, however, is the way people use media. Viewers are multi-tasking while watching, time-shifting programs for their own convenience, acting as if they cannot get enough media. And of course the options for how to get television are many—over-the-air free broadcasting, subscription cable services, subscription satellite services, computer, or via telephony. Very definitely a busy time—not at all dead!

There is a disturbing shift, however, in consolidation of ownership with more and more small stations being merged into large broadcast groups. In some communities, there are no local broadcasters left, nobody to call in case of disaster.

But there’s locally-owned public television. No media company is more dedicated to our children, our democracy, and our culture than public broadcasting. Here’s a gateway to new ideas and broader horizons. Nationally, PBS prepares millions of children for success in school, welcomes all Americans to explore the worlds of science, nature and history, shares multiple perspectives and invites audiences to experience the arts in ways that may not otherwise be possible.

In this brave new world of “anybody can post anything on the internet,” more people than ever are depending on public television as a trusted source of information and context for our civilization. In a Roper poll released just last month, PBS ranked first in trust over courts of law, commercial broadcasting, and Congress. Roper also rated PBS an exceptional value for tax dollars, second only to the national military defense. PBS.org is one of the 50 most influential sites on the web, according to a leading search engine. And it was voted a “landmark website for teaching and learning” by the American Association of School Libraries. Public television news is rated first in fairness and trust by liberals and conservatives, and it’s rated the highest in providing access to arts and culture for all people. Last year, PBS won more Peabody Awards and news and documentary and children’s Emmys than any other media company.

With all this quality and all this content, where is public broadcasting headed and what are the greatest obstacles ahead? We are moving toward whatever medium appeals to viewers, be it 3-D, i-Pods, mobile broadcast, or uses not yet invented. PBS has always been at technology’s cutting edge, figuring out how to use those novelty gizmos for the greater good. Obstacles? It’s always been about the funding.

Public broadcasting has been designed since its inception to be at least partially supported by government. Among industrialized nations, the U.S. spends the least on its public broadcasting system. Nations like Sweden, the U.K., and Italy give anywhere from $80 to $200 a year per capita, while the U.S. spends less than two dollars on average. The remaining funding comes from contributions (those ubiquitous “viewers like you” pitches), businesses, a small amount of earned income, state and local government funding, universities, and so on. This diversity of funding sources stands as both a strength and a weakness. Before creating content, pub-casters spend much greater amounts of time looking for cash than do their overseas counterparts. This variation does make for less government control, though, as well as a free and robust exchange of ideas within a creative milieu.

The State of North Carolina spends approximately ten million dollars a year on its state public broadcasting; WTVI gets none of this. In the current fiscal year, Mecklenburg County provides 23% of WTVI’s operating budget and has proposed zeroing it out altogether. It’s hard to advocate for the liberal arts against a backdrop of human services need, but our society needs to be very clear that the arts, the libraries, parks, and public television all contribute to Charlotte’s celebrated quality of life and must be nurtured if we are to pull ourselves out of the economic slump. Our forefathers sacrificed for our generation, and our descendants are counting on us not to drop the torch.

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