How U.S. Public Broadcasting Works

Filmmaker Ken Burns, composer Trent Reznor and composer Atticus Ross of 'The Vietnam War' speak onstage during the PBS portion of the 2017 Winter Television Critics Association Press Tour in Pasadena, California. Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

If you've ever watched "Sesame Street" or listened to "All Things Considered," in the U.S., you've tuned in to public broadcasting. Every month, some 170 million Americans — more than half the U.S. population – tune in to public media via its TV stations, radio stations or online services. In fact, PBS, the public TV station, has more viewers that A&E, Discovery and HGTV each [sources: 170 Million Americans, PBS].

People tune in to hear programs or watch shows not normally available on other channels. This was particularly true in the days before cable TV, and more recently, the internet, YouTube and podcasts. Viewers and listeners get educational programming, TV series imported from Great Britain, serious documentaries, long-form coverage of current events and political talk shows. But how did public broadcasting start?


It began in 1967, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Public Broadcasting Act. The act was intended to spur the development of noncommercial radio, which was starting to grow as traditional commercial radio was declining, a victim of that newfangled technological wonder, television. Under provisions of the act, the federal government created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), a private, nonprofit entity [source: NPR].

CPB doesn't produce or distribute radio or TV programs, or operate any stations. In fact, it is legally prohibited from doing so. Instead, CPB created the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in 1969 and National Public Radio (NPR) in 1970 and charged the two with delivering educational, cultural and news content across the nation.

PBS and NPR receive federal funds through CPB, which is funded with U.S. tax dollars, though not much. CPB requested a $445 million advance appropriation for fiscal year (FY) 2019, the same amount Congress provided in 2016, 2017 and 2018. That's a pretty small allocation — it comes out to 0.01 percent of the federal budget and NPR's portion of the allocation amounts to less than 1 percent of its operating budget [sources: Burrus, Plumer]. (CPB is mandated to spend 95 percent of its funding on local public media stations, content development, community services and other related needs [sources: CPB, Encyclopaedia Brittanica].)

Yet every so often, Congress debates getting rid of the funding while public media executives fiercely cling to receiving it. We'll look at the pros and cons of government sponsorship — and other issues — in this article.


National Public Radio (NPR)

National Public Radio's Carl Kasell organizes news articles while preparing for one of his last newscasts at NPR, Dec. 30, 2009, in Washington, D.C. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

When NPR debuted in 1970, it was charged with producing and distributing national news programs to member stations. Member stations — there were 90 to start — could air programs solely licensed from NPR and others, or they could also produce some original content of their own. (For instance, the popular talk show "Fresh Air" is produced by WHYY-FM, the flagship NPR station in Philadelphia but is broadcast nationally by NPR.) The first thing NPR ever aired was live coverage of the Senate hearings on the Vietnam War.

"All Things Considered," an afternoon newsmagazine, was NPR's first major program, and was unveiled in 1971. "Morning Edition," a newsmagazine for the morning rush hour, followed in 1979 [source: NPR]. Few probably dreamed of how prestigious and widespread the fledgling public radio organization would become.


Some 40 years later, NPR has nearly 1,000 member and associate stations broadcasting its programs, which cover not just news, but a variety of genres such as humor, music and quizzes. NPR also has a multimedia presence via podcasting, mobile applications and social media. As of March 2017, NPR had 34 national and international bureaus. Listeners approach the 40 million mark among all NPR stations, with more than 41 million unique monthly visitors at [source: NPR].

Much of the group's growth and popularity comes from its high-quality content. "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" are two of the top-ranked nationwide radio programs, and both have won numerous journalism awards.

NPR receives its financing from a variety of sources. In FY 2014-16, fees and dues from its member stations were the largest sources of revenue (39 percent), followed by corporate sponsorships (24 percent), and grants and contributions (14 percent). Other income sources include foundations, colleges and universities, and CPB [source: NPR].

Stations are charged for carrying "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" based on the volume of listeners the stations have, multiplied by a unit price. Other shows, for instance "Fresh Air," are priced in proportion to the station's total revenue. So, a station with a lot of listeners will pay more for a program than a small station. That's because larger stations can raise more money from listeners through the biannual pledge drives.

NPR has also had digital success using an instant fact checking tool to annotate the 2016 presidential debate transcripts on its website and streaming Facebook Live episodes of its reporters and anchors at work.


Public Broadcasting System (PBS)

Richard Johnston, musical instruments appraiser for 'Antiques Roadshow' holds a 1955 Les Paul guitar brought for appraisal by Dan Sillaman (white shirt in background). Sillaman and his guitar were selected to be filmed for a later airing of the show. Tracy A Woodward/The Washington Post via Getty Images

From "Sesame Street" and "Nova," to "Antiques Roadshow," PBS is known for its educational and entertaining programming. Many of its shows have been on the air for decades. Some 200 million folks tune into PBS annually, representing 82 percent of all U.S. television households [source: PBS ].

PBS was designed as a replacement for National Educational Television (NET), an entity developed and principally funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation in 1952. NET did not take government funds, and sometimes ran documentaries critical of U.S. foreign policy.


Many members of Congress and other government employees were not happy about these criticisms, which is one reason President Lyndon B. Johnson created the publicly funded CPB in 1967. Public broadcasting that was partially funded by the federal government would, he hoped, not be critical of it. NET folded not too long after PBS debuted [source: Burrus].

Much like NPR, PBS and its nearly 350 member stations (e.g., Colorado Public Television and Wisconsin Public Television) offer viewers a wide variety of programming, some national and some locally produced. The stations serve all 50 states plus American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Funding comes mainly from member stations, but also from corporations, foundations and, as they always say at the beginning of each show, "viewers like you." About 7 percent of PBS' funding comes from CPB [source: Ingram].

In PBS' early years, it offered such legendary shows as "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," "Evening at Pops" and "Masterpiece Theatre." Other notables followed: "The MacNeil/Lehrer Report," "This Old House," "The Frugal Gourmet." PBS also airs numerous documentaries, including several by the legendary Ken Burns, plus many British TV shows. PBS introduced Americans to "Monty Python's Flying Circus" in the 1970s and "Are You Being Served?" seems to have been rerunning on the station since the 1980s. "Downton Abbey" was another enormous hit in the 2010s.

These programs, and especially its stellar children's programming (like "Sesame Street" and "Curious George"), created a lot of trust in PBS among viewers. In January 2017, for the 14th consecutive year, a national poll commissioned by PBS found the company was the most trustworthy among a group of nationally known institutions, including the federal government, newspaper publications and courts of law. PBS KIDS was ranked the top educational media brand for kids in the same survey [source: PBS].


Public Broadcasting Controversies

Ben Winkler speaks to the crowd who came show their support for PBS, urging Congress not to defund CPB, near the Capitol on March 21, 2017, in Washington, D.C. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for

Despite the generally positive reception public radio and TV has in the U.S., there have been some criticisms over the years.

The most prominent is perhaps that public media is left-leaning and an organization getting money from the government shouldn't have a bias. This idea was exacerbated in 2011, when then-NPR president and CEO Vivian Schiller resigned after an undercover video surfaced showing one of her executives calling Republican tea party members "seriously racist, racist people" [source: CBS News]. A 2011 article on looked at NPR's Twitter connections, which revealed a somewhat left-of-center fan base [sources: Bercovici]. On the other hand, at least one former NPR host thinks the organization is too conservative and that its reports "sound like little more than Pentagon press releases" [source: Ragusea]. NPR execs insist it's neutral and presents both sides of the issues du jour.


Another repeated controversy is the government funding of public media. In that same undercover video, the NPR executive said the network would be better off long-term without federal funding. Without it, he said, NPR would be independent and free of the misconception that most of its funding comes from the government.

This is ironic, as calls to defund public broadcasting most often come from conservatives. But people on both sides of the political divide have said that public media could do without government funding. They point out that once the government starts shelling out bucks to news outlets, it expects something in return: favorable coverage.

It's certainly possible there is some self-censorship among America's public media. But the U.S. has a strong culture of freedom of the press and PBS has aired several documentaries critical of U.S. government policies. NPR also consistently interviews critics of current U.S. presidents in power on its major shows.

In early 2017, President Donald Trump proposed draining all federal funds from CPB, meaning no more federal money for NPR and PBS. As we said earlier, the amounts involved are small. But those in the public media business say defunding would be quite damaging, especially to stations in small markets where the federal investment can make up 40 to 50 percent of its budget [source: Ingram]. CPB contributions also pay for the Public Broadcasting System's technical infrastructure as well as copyright fees [source: CPB].

Most Americans seem to support the government funding. In a January 2017 survey, 76 percent of those polled said they oppose the elimination of federal funding for public broadcasting [source: Hart Research/American Viewpoint].


The Future of Public Broadcasting

The headquarters for National Public Radio, or NPR, are seen in Washington, D.C, Sept. 17, 2013. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

A bigger question than whether the government should continue providing a small portion of funding to public broadcasting is whether public radio and public TV will become obsolete in today's fragmented media landscape. In 2015, the median age of NPR's audience was 54 years old. Twenty years earlier, it was 45 [source: Neyfakh]. That doesn't bode well in a hip, young, plugged-in world, where listeners appear to prefer news that's delivered via podcast in a rather irreverent style, as opposed to the earnest, sober tones of a typical NPR journalist.

NPR does offer several podcasts. But until recently, it really didn't promote them on the air because that was considered a conflict of interest for the affiliate stations that didn't want people downloading shows that the affiliates had already paid big money to carry on air. Nevertheless, many public radio shows are in the top 10 for most listened-to podcasts ("This American Life" is No. 3 and "TED Radio Hour" is No. 6).


In 2014, NPR launched its own app, NPR One, but currently doesn't promote it on the air. (NPR circulated a memo to staff saying it was OK to mention that an announcer was a host of a particular podcast but not OK to tell people they could download the podcast via the NPR One app or iTunes.) The app offers a mix of NPR content and local news.

But despite some affiliate misgivings about apps cannibalizing their audiences, these apps could actually help grow them. About 40 percent of NPR One listeners are under 35, a coveted demographic. A third of the app users said in a survey that they seldom listen to NPR via traditional radio, while another quarter said they were listening more to terrestrial radio after using the NPR One app [source: Falk].

Most of the NPR member stations are available on NPR One, and some of the bigger affiliates have started promoting NPR One on their own. They have attracted a lot of new listeners, as they tailor their offerings to a mobile audience. Smaller stations, which lack the manpower to do things like this, have been slower to take advantage of NPR One.

PBS is trying to stay in the game with new offerings such as Passport, a video-on-demand service. Passport debuted in December 2015 to entice those who might want to binge-watch "Downton Abbey," which was about to air its final season. Some 1,000 episodes of various shows are available on Passport, including "Antiques Roadshow," "American Experience" and "Nova" [source: Goldsmith]. To access Passport, you must donate to your local station.

In 2016, "Sesame Street" made a stunning move to HBO after 46 years on PBS. The show signed a five-year deal with the members-only network siting huge financial losses. Although "Sesame Street" makes money from merchandising toys and DVDs, producing the show is expensive and revenues had been declining due to changing media habits. Some saw this move as a betrayal of the program's original values — to provide education to kids via free TV. Others note that this might have been the only way for "Sesame Street" to survive, thanks to the money provided by HBO. The new episodes will air exclusively on HBO and will then be available on PBS nine months later. [source: Goldstein].

As to whether this move is an anomaly or a forecast of what might happen to PBS content remains to be seen. One thing's for sure: Public media has realized that adaptation is key to survival.


Lots More Information

Author's Note: How U.S. Public Broadcasting Works

I'm dating myself, but I clearly remember the day "Sesame Street" went on the air. I was too old for the show, but it was such a novel program that I swallowed my pride and joined my younger siblings, ages 2 and 5, to watch it. Soon I was hooked. Not only by "Sesame Street," but later by "Mister Rogers," "The Electric Company" and scores of other such shows. Because if it was on PBS, you knew it would be good. NPR came into my life when I was a young adult, and it was clear that it was quality programming as well.

Today, I continue to have great respect for all public broadcasting. Should we give them federal funds? I vote yes.

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More Great Links

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