Reductions in tax-based support for pubcasting have shortened the financial gap between public television and radio stations, accelerating public TV’s decade-long financial decline and demonstrating resilience within segments of the public radio system.
Taken as a whole, public TV stations lost more than $142 million in revenues from 2011 to 2012, according to CPB’s latest report (pdf) on the financial health of public stations. Radio revenues increased by more than $3 million, but the gains were concentrated among the largest radio stations.
In 2012, television stations recorded $1.75 billion in total revenue, 7.5 percent less than the previous year, when revenues totaled $1.91 billion. The 2011–2012 financial reporting period coincided with deep cuts in state aid to public broadcasters, including complete elimination of subsidies to stations in New Jersey, Florida and New Hampshire.
On the radio side, in 2012, revenues totaled $1.108 billion, a .3 percent increase from the $1.105 billion recorded in 2011, which marked the first time that annual pubradio revenues exceeded $1 billion.
“There is a clear, diverging trend,” said CPB financial analyst Moustapha Abdul, who presented this year’s “State of the System” study May 30 during the Public Media Business Association conference in Washington, D.C. “And, needless to say, radio is in a little better position.”
The study was compiled from data that stations report to CPB and found that financial distress is spread unevenly across the pubcasting system and in divergent patterns between public TV and radio.
While revenue gains among the biggest public radio stations are driving that system’s growth, $4.5 million in increased support for TV stations operating on budgets of less than $5 million couldn’t make up for the losses of larger outlets with budgets of at least $10 million. This segment of the public TV system — which makes up 30 percent of CPB-qualified TV stations — lost a total of $147.2 million in revenue.
CPB attributed most of public TV’s revenue losses to cuts in state, university and federal subsidies, which provided approximately 40 percent of TV stations’ total revenues. Federal assistance to public TV stations — provided through CPB and other federal grant programs and contracts — declined 16 percent during the two years covered in the report, from $452 million in 2011 compared to $376 million in 2012. State funding for public TV dropped nearly 6 percent, from $272 million to $256 million in 2012.
Public TV stations did see a combined $1 million increase in individual donations in 2012 and a $23 million increase in business and foundation support. Despite those gains, stations lost $74 million from other revenue categories.
Losses mounted in other indicators of public TV’s financial status. The number of donors dropped 14 percent, hitting a five-year low of roughly 3 million.
Public TV’s weekly cume, a measure of the system’s reach and relevance to TV viewers, dropped to 38 million in 2012, marking a 17 percent drop from the 2007 peak of 46 million.
To help adjust to the financial losses, TV stations reduced their payrolls, shedding 185 positions between 2011 and 2012. The reductions left a public TV workforce of 11,062, 15 percent smaller than in 2007, when stations employed 13,088 staffers.
Radio’s donor base expands
Public radio’s performance from 2011 to 2012 was also tied to the fortunes of its biggest stations, although with an effect opposite of that felt in public TV.
Total revenues at public radio stations climbed $3.06 million year-to-year. But the biggest stations — the 11 percent that operate on budgets of more than $5 million — boosted their earnings by a total of $7.7 million. The gains buoyed the public radio system against losses at stations with budgets of $5 million or less.
The smallest pubradio stations — those that operated on less than $2.5 million annually — made up 74 percent of the field and lost a total of $3.6 million in revenues from 2011–2012. Stations in the middle, with budgets between $2.5 million and $5 million, saw revenue dip $1.09 million during the two-year period.
But since public radio relies less on government support than public TV, the field was better able to absorb cuts in tax-based funding. Federal and state subsidies provided 16 percent of public radio’s total revenues in fiscal 2012. State aid for public radio remained flat at $35 million in 2011 and 2012. Federal assistance dropped nearly 2.7 percent, from $149 million to $145 million in 2012.
Radio stations also raised more funds from individual donors than television stations, with donations providing 37 percent of radio’s revenues in 2012 and 25 percent of revenues for the TV system. Radio’s fundraising revenues grew to $412 million, a gain of $17 million from the previous year’s $395 million.
Public radio experienced 14 percent growth in its donor base from 2005 to 2012, putting it roughly on par with its pubTV counterparts with 2.8 million contributors.