PUBLIC BROADCASTING'S FUTURE

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For public broadcasters, the question is not whether but when and by how much their annual federal funding will be cut. That makes it imperative for public TV and public radio, and their partners and supporters in the marketing world, to begin now to prepare for replacing that income.

Public broadcasters cannot simply claim immunity from budget cutting, no matter their record of service to children, students and other special audiences or how small their slice of the federal pie is. Neither is there reason to abruptly "zero out" public broadcasting from the budget, however.

Public TV and radio deserve time to plot a survival strategy. Small market stations, which might disappear without outside aid, may need continued help while large market stations might survive on their own if freed of FCC rules that limit offerings to marketers.

PBS, for example, should negotiate a bigger share of the profits from products spun off from hit shows like "Barney." But decisions about which programs to air should not be determined solely by a show's potential for generating sales of licensed goods.

To survive, stations will need more latitude to create new corporate partnership concepts. And, as aid declines or even disappears, large market stations should be free to decide how much commercialization its paying subscribers will accept.

Continued aid for small market stations can preserve access to "public" broadcasting for most Americans. But survival for PBS and NPR as we now know them is not a government "entitlement." Their future should properly rest on their success as business managers and on the support they can draw from marketers, viewers, educators and state and local governments.

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