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.
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.
More Great Links
- American Public Television. "History." (April 9, 2017) https://www.aptonline.org/aptweb.nsf/vAboutAPT/About+APT-History
- Bercovici, Jeff. "Science Settle It: NPR's Liberal, But Not Very." Forbes. March 22, 2011. (April 13, 2017) https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffbercovici/2011/03/22/science-settles-it-nprs-liberal-but-not-very/#39ad772d2a5b
- Burrus, Trevor. "Why NPR and PBS Should Stop Taking Government Money." April 1, 2017. (April 9, 2017) http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2017/04/02/why-npr-and-pbs-should-stop-taking-government-money.html
- CBS News. "NPR CEO resigns amid hidden-camera scandal." March 9, 2011. (April 9, 2017) http://www.cbsnews.com/news/npr-ceo-resigns-amid-hidden-camera-scandal/
- Committee to Protect Journalists. "10 Most Censored Countries." 2015. (April 14, 2017) https://cpj.org/2015/04/10-most-censored-countries.php
- Corporation for Public Broadcasting. "Corporation for Public Broadcasting Appropriation Request and Justification FY2017 and FY2019." Feb. 9, 2016. (April 10, 2017) http://www.cpb.org/files/appropriation/justification-FY17-and-FY19.pdf
- Corporation for Public Broadcasting. "CPB FAQ." (April 10, 2017) http://www.cpb.org/faq
- Davis, Bill. "Public broadcasting needs our support now more than ever: Guest commentary." March 31, 2017. (April 9, 2017) http://www.sgvtribune.com/opinion/20170331/public-broadcasting-needs-our-support-now-more-than-ever-guest-commentary
- Encyclopaedia Brittanica. "Public Broadcasting Service (PBS)." April 9, 2012. (April 9, 2017) https://www.britannica.com/topic/Public-Broadcasting-Service
- Ferro, Jennifer. "OPED: PBS cuts create disconnect." York Dispatch. April 3, 2017. (April 9, 2017). http://www.yorkdispatch.com/story/opinion/columnists/2017/04/03/oped-plan-defund-pbs-creates-disconnect/99977740/
- Goldsmith, Jill. "PBS Passport serves up on-demand content for public TV's members." Current. Dec. 15, 2015. (April 14, 2017) http://current.org/2015/12/pbs-passport-serves-up-on-demand-content-for-public-tvs-members/
- Hart Research/American Viewpoint. "PBS Voter Survey Final." January 2017. (April 14, 2017) http://pbs.bento.storage.s3.amazonaws.com/hostedbento-prod/filer_public/PBS_About/Files%20and%20Thumbnails/Release%20Files/Public%20Television%20Voter%20Survey%20Questionnaire%20and%20Responses.pdf
- Holcomb, Jesse, et al. "Public Broadcasting: Fact Sheet." Pew Research Center. June 16, 2016. (April 11, 2017) http://www.journalism.org/2016/06/15/public-broadcasting-fact-sheet/
- Inside Radio. "NPR Looks For 'Up First' To Land That Way With Fans." April 5, 2017. (April 12, 2017) http://www.insideradio.com/free/npr-looks-for-up-first-to-land-that-way-with/article_fd3115f6-19c2-11e7-b900-fb3cfdb3b220.html
- National Public Radio. "NPR Fact Sheet." (April 10, 2017) http://www.npr.org/about/press/NPR_Fact_Sheet.pdf
- National Public Radio. "Overview And History." (April 9, 2017) http://www.npr.org/about-npr/192827079/overview-and-history
- National Public Radio. "Public Radio Finances." (April 13, 2017) http://www.npr.org/about-npr/178660742/public-radio-finances
- Neyfakh, Leon. "The Fight for the Future of NPR." Slate. April 10, 2016. (April 14, 2017) http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/cover_story/2016/04/the_fight_for_the_future_of_npr_can_public_radio_survive_the_podcast_revolution.html
- Public Broadcasting System. "Nationwide Survey Confirms That PBS and Member Stations Are America's Most Trusted Institution for the 14th Consecutive Year." Feb. 23, 2017. (April 13, 2017) http://www.pbs.org/about/blogs/news/nationwide-survey-confirms-that-pbs-and-member-stations-are-americas-most-trusted-institution-for-the-14th-consecutive-year/
- Public Broadcasting System. "Overview." February 2017. (April 9, 2017) http://www.pbs.org/about/about-pbs/overview/
- Public Radio International. "About PRI." (April 10, 2017) https://www.pri.org/about-pri
- Ruben, Marina Koestler. "Radio Activity: The 100th Anniversary of Public Broadcasting." Jan. 26, 2010. (April 9, 2017) http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/radio-activity-the-100th-anniversary-of-public-broadcasting-6555594/
- Thomas, Tom and Terry Clifford. "The Numbers." 170 Million Americans. December 2010. (April 10, 2017) http://www.170millionamericans.net/the-numbers.htm