How U.S. Public Broadcasting Works

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.

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