Show me a better deal than public TV

Print More
Two years after the CPB funding crisis began to subside, public TV’s assigned public-policy representative, the president of America’s Public Television Stations (APTS), was giving variations on this stump speech at meetings of pubcasters. This is an edited version of David Brugger’s remarks to the FirstView instructional TV screening conference in August 1998.

One of the important revelations to station professionals and lay volunteers during our last Capitol Hill Day was that their members of Congress often fed back the message they had heard from the more than 85 percent of their constituents in your home towns who said they wanted continued or increased federal funding — this, in many cases, from members of Congress who had been ardent opponents of federal funding just 18 months before.

David Brugger grinning

Brugger, president of APTS, 1998

Last summer’s Roper survey showed that Americans see public radio and public television as their second- and third-best values in return for tax dollars spent. This is even higher than during the 1995 funding crisis when we were No. 3 and No. 4.

After Congress cut the CPB appropriation down to $250 million two years in a row, we received $300 million for fiscal year 2000–a 20 percent increase–and we are well on our way to $340 million in 2001–another 13 percent increase. On top of that, we received a 33 percent increase over the President’s recommendation for our Public Telecommunications Facilities Program matching fund; and had Mathline, Ready-to-Learn and Star Schools put back in the Senate appropriations bill in what now has become an annual advocacy fight. Further, we have hopes of getting some digital funds in this year’s appropriations and already have language in the House bill that acknowledges our need for such funding, even though it is not yet authorized.

In addition to Hill successes this past year, the Supreme Court confirmed public TV stations’ right to cable access, that is, must-carry protection, and we maintained public television’s right of access to Direct Broadcast Satellite spectrum. APTS played a leadership role in forging coalitions to aggressively represent your interests in these cases. Member stations have told APTS of the positive financial impact of these court victories.

As one station manager pointed out, during a week when public television’s American Experience profiled three of the century’s great presidents — in multiple-hour programs, uninterrupted by commercials — one of the cable competitors praised by Sen. McCain was profiling the Three Stooges within an hour interrupted by 20 minutes of commercials and promotions.

As a result, we have the public, the Administration, the courts and the Congress supporting public broadcasting. What can stop us now? The major forces resisting our progress will come, I believe, from inside public broadcasting. And this isn’t just rhetoric. There were those who found the outspoken opponents to our funding much too convincing, and those stations hesitated to use our record of service, backed by our political muscle, to make that rhetoric backfire.

After 30 years in public broadcasting, I have trouble understanding how any public broadcasting professional, given the stations’ contribution to the education of their communities, could lack confidence in the merit of our public funding and in our public who support us. I know it’s easy to stand so close to the mountains in front of us that we can be overwhelmed by the height and severity of the climb.

But Congress has every incentive to grant us long-term funding stability, to commit funds for our transition to digital, and to finally use our technology to make the best in educational services available to every American.

By combining new technologies with your educational initiatives, public television is America’s Classroom of the Future, not a broadcaster of the past.

Through your local training services and our national Business Channel, we are the Telecommunications Center for Maintaining American Leadership. Through arts and humanities programs, we become the Bridge to Understanding in a society of growing cultural diversity. Through our public affairs programs, we make viewers into better citizens. Through our children’s programming, we remain the Ultimate Safe Harbor.

A service that raises $6 for every federal dollar

What other institution, public or private, has our reach, our accessibility, our educational mission, our public support, your experience, our partnerships, or the track record of public broadcasting stations? It doesn’t exist.

We have a 36-year history of substantial and mostly growing federal funding; overwhelming nonpartisan public support; overwhelming bipartisan political support; and a stated congressional commitment to the need for our services.

I challenge you to show me another program that matches federal appropriations at better than six local dollars to every federal dollar, or is reaching 98 percent of the country and is voluntarily used by 95 million people a week — and that’s just on-air broadcasts. Show me another public service that is as pervasive in its range of services, which are expanding daily.

How is it that we had come to be viewed by some members of Congress and even some within public broadcasting as asking the federal government for a handout? We return far more than any investment that the Congress makes on behalf of their local taxpayers.

We have a Congress where ideologues on the right and left may try to set the agenda for any debate about public broadcasting. We have opponents of federal funding using either a lack of knowledge about your services or bully pulpit-attempts to misinform. Over and over, we have the chairman of our authorizing committee in the Senate, John McCain of Arizona, stating in every public venue that cable channels have programs that are superior to ours and have higher rankings from educators.

As one station manager pointed out, during a week when public television’s American Experience profiled three of the century’s great presidents — in multiple-hour programs, uninterrupted by commercials — one of the cable competitors praised by the senator was profiling the Three Stooges within an hour interrupted by 20 minutes of commercials and promotions.

That same John McCain is quoted saying that if the Discovery Channel and the Arts & Entertainment Network can make it in the world of commerce without federal funds, so can public television.

Now forget the fact that these cable services started out by having the federal government grant their parent companies corporate welfare in the form of monopoly authority to make billions of dollars that capitalized those channels.

Forget the fact that the audiences for public television remain stable in the face of growing competition, while the audiences for the commercial networks continue to drop, giving lie to the perception that commercial media outlets, regardless of their numbers, are truly serving public TV’s audiences.

The American public can see the quality, variety and community impact that differentiates our programming and services from commercial media. That was demonstrated in the most recent Roper Poll on attitudes towards public TV, cable TV and regular TV. They found public TV two to four times more educational, 24 to 64 percent more informative, 66 percent more important, 142 percent more imaginative and 166 percent more stimulating.

That same poll found cable and regular TV to be three times more dull, five to eight times declining in quality, two to six times too simple-minded, and 12 times as often in bad taste.

Dumbing down: the option

But given all that, why can’t public television be more like these cable channels? Well, public television can be more like our commercial cable imitators.

Public television can cut out all on-air service for 35 percent of the citizens of this country (who can’t or don’t pay for cable).

Public TV can charge a subscription fee so only financially well-off citizens can afford its quality programming.

Our stations can interrupt programming every 10 minutes for commercials.

We can shorten our programming and sell products to kids for 20 minutes every hour and add 25 acts of violence to each hour of children’s programming.

We can cut back on our quality educational children’s programming by 11 hours per day.

You can stop producing more than 60,000 hours of local programs per year, thus eliminating the broadcast time allotted to candidates for public office, community nonprofit organizations and other local constituents of the members of Congress.

You can stop broadcasting programming for community outreach to fight illiteracy, drug abuse, youth violence and addiction.

We can discontinue the No. 1 teachers’ choice for in-school curriculum-related programs coming to them from cable–and that’s according to surveys by the National Cable Television Association itself.

We can take away from teachers their largest source of programming used in the classroom, and increasingly those programs specifically designed for instructional use, as well as the ones that teachers rate as the best programs in nine out of ten citings.

Public TV can stop offering college-credit courses for 400,000 working adults each semester, denying them the ability to improve their livelihood and their growing contribution to the economy like the 3.5 million adults who preceded them.

Public TV can stop serving thousands of employers in the business community with training and self-improvement courses.

We can stop improving the capabilities of math and science teachers as we have done for over 115,000 teachers affecting 16 million students.

Public television can deny local community access to the broadcast media by eliminating about 200 local production facilities. Then we can do away with the 235,000 citizen-volunteers who also enlist thousands more in each community to extend our outreach and education projects.

Public TV can discontinue control of programming at the local constituent level and put all program decision-making in a single network operation in Washington or Denver.

We can stop the flow of hundreds of thousands of First Books to children of low-income families.

Public TV stations can stop the hundreds of Ready-To-Learn workshops for parents and child care givers.

We can stop producing 70 percent original programming each week and begin airing more reruns, as cable channels do.

Public television can shut down its GED program that has enabled over 2 million adults to obtain high school diplomas via TV. Recent figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that citizens with a high school diploma or equivalency contribute $4,980 more to their state’s economy every year than high school dropouts do. That’s $10 billion added to our nation’s economy annually. Multiply that by the 30 or more years Americans spend in the workforce.

If we take all of this off our airways, this and lots more that you are delivering, we too can become like our private commercial models.

Well, I don’t think it is up to us to dumb-down our services to meet the competition. I know we sometimes get mixed messages from individual members of Congress, but if there are those who want to dumb-down by cutting our funding, we don’t have to go quietly into that dark night.

Futurists say that we are in a period of devolution of power and responsibility from central to local authorities. Yet we need a sense of nationhood combined with that localism. There is a need for common values and for collective action. As we evaluate what government can and cannot do, we need to recognize that voluntary efforts alone are not enough to accomplish great national goals. Public broadcasting’s advantage is that we work with the people of our communities, not for them. We have learned from that relationship that we cannot extrapolate the future from the present. We have learned that people want value and quality, not necessarily something merely labeled “public television.” Our guiding principles are to provide quality and value in all of our products.

Remember the most recent Roper Poll on attitudes towards public TV. We are not more dull, getting worse, too simple-minded, or in worse taste. But we are more educational, more informative, more important, more imaginative and more stimulating.

Those who issue calls to privatize us conveniently forget that commercial vehicles like the telephone companies, cable companies, commercial broadcasters and the Internet all started with government capitalization. In fact it took the federal government 30 years of tax-based investing before the Internet was even thought of as a potential commercial vehicle. And while we are doing so much good through the Internet, what has commercialism done for it? Its leading commercial product is pornography, and that has brought nothing but criticism from the same congressional leaders who want your work to be more commercial.

And it’s not as if we are shying away from earning our own way. Public TV earns 58 percent of its funds from non-tax-based sources. We have also seen the risks and failures inherent in entrepreneurial funding ventures.

We in public broadcasting are not unlike a community of faith. We have our shared stories that give meaning to our professional and personal lives and what we provide to the lives of teachers, students and parents. We have shared norms or traditions that form rituals, which, as Erik Erikson said, are the foundation of community.

We have a shared vision for the value of noncommercial and public education to the future of this country — a future that will allow us to build new communities, especially those formed by the changing demographics of our cities and then the country as a whole.

We have lived through a decade of costs: the costs of changing values that makes teaching more difficult, the costs of changing family relationships that place more responsibility on educators, the costs of technological change–now with digital television giving us greater capabilities for serving broad educational needs.

When industrialist and philanthropist George Soros speaks of the capitalist threat, he is referring to how the political and economic societies have undermined the civil society with practices euphemistically called “downsizing,” “right-sizing” and the like. With decentralization and great technological change, there is a need for organizing chaos and complexity. Our universal noncommercial public media is a natural solution for doing just that.

Our shared vision of the value of our educational services can give the Congress and the public a new reality. What good will it do them to know the cost of everything and the value of nothing?

Knowledge is the commodity of the future. We are the creators and distributors of the essential elements of that commodity. To share it is to spread the wealth. What better way to share knowledge than through universally available media that can reach the most distant and the poorest in this country!

As the United States prepares to spend billions on integrating technology and education, we have every reason to be arguing for a more appropriate share of the federal investment. By any measurement, public broadcasting is not a drain on the federal treasury; it spends federal funds efficiently and effectively, produces a fantastic return on investment. And all this despite our tendency to flagellate ourselves for not doing enough.

We need to be sure that through timidity, indifference or the sermons of false prophets, we do not provide incentives for downsizing ourselves. Commercial broadcasters with their vast resources petitioned Congress to win billions of dollars worth of spectrum. With the numbers of commercial channels dominating the media choices, and plenty more on the horizon, surely the public deserves our championship of a place for them, a place for civility, a place for culture, a place for citizenship, and, yes, a place for education.

And what is public broadcasting’s financial incentive to pursue federal dollars? We know from a business point of view that a station’s return on its investment for federal dollars is the most cost-efficient of its development activities. That allows you to put more of your creative energies into producing quality services for your local education clients.

During the past two years, stations invested an average of two cents to make back a dollar in direct CSG funding. And that’s with more than 35 stations contributing nothing to the effort. This is the best return on investment of any station fundraising effort. During this same period, public TV stations also received another $50 million to $75 million annually in federal grants, and, Congress finished paying for public television’s new $155 million digital satellite system.

Why have we been successful? We’ve been successful because of our big PAC fund. No, I’m not talking about part of the $429 million dollars that the 4,500 Political Action Committees spent supporting politicians last year. I’m talking about our people power.

Our PAC fund is the influence of our 4,000 board members. Our PAC fund is the involvement of your 235,000 volunteers at your stations. Our PAC fund is the 10,000 people on your staffs and their families. Our PAC fund is your 5 million-plus member/subscribers who are willing to pay for value. Our PAC fund is the thousands of businesses who partner with us each year to bring valued services to your communities. Our PAC fund is the 95 million weekly viewers and the millions of other users of your nonbroadcast services. Our PAC fund is the 1.5 million classroom teachers and their millions of students who learn and use the knowledge that you make accessible. Our PAC fund is the political capital of every community organization with which you did a program this year, every community institution you worked with on outreach. Our PAC fund is all of you here today.

Your self-confidence can be the energy that will eventually create trust fund authorization, and assure continued appropriations until a stable source of funds is established.

Surely we can use this human capital to generate support for literacy, for reducing youth violence, for quality children’s programming, for teacher training, childcare, lifelong learning–you know the list better than I.

Thomas Alva Edison said that “restlessness and discontent are the first necessities of progress.” We have had more than our share of restlessness and discontent about the future and about the digital age. Yet among broadcasters, we have established the leadership position again.

It’s time for you to make better known the work that you are doing for the knowledge industry of this country and for all of us to get on with our progress.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *