It’s not – at least yet. This is analysis, not a normative or cautionary statement. It’s also not the only future that could play out: there must be other, better options.
What would happen if the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a 40+ year survivor of many political designs on its existence, were finally fatally wounded by (lack of) Congressional appropriation?
Full disclosure: I was an employee of PBS and continue to work on various PBS projects in a consulting capacity. None of these thoughts represent PBS or any other pubic media entity.
Nothing dramatic for at least a year
CPB has two-year forward funding precisely to prevent short-term political interference. During that period it’s fair to expect dramatic shift at the local level as GMs both plead the congressional case while also ramping up fundraising. With CPB out of the picture, congress will have even greater leverage to ask for changes within PBS and NPR as they jockey for funds to prevent what comes next.
Rural stations are hollowed out
The CPB offices in downtown D.C., now mostly empty, are closed down. The last checks are cut to stations and, within months, stations covering massive potions of rural America will either shut down or become shells of their former selves. For many, CPB provides 20, 30, or even 60% of operating budget. Without any local resources, there will be little need for local ownership so there may be an attempt to form regional consortiums to buy up these licenses if they aren’t outbid by religious or commercial conglomerates. Those that survive will face a future where they lack the resources to carve out unique identities, leading to what comes next.
Within middle and top-tier media markets there will be tremendous pressure towards consolidation, especially among stations serving specialty communities. School districts, universities, Native American and Latino populations are just some of the example station diversity that would be pushed towards merging with more mainstream stations in all but top 5 markets to avoid competing for ever-important member dollars. This is already happening to some extent, but would be dramatically accelerated, even in some cases with hostile takeovers.
Reduction of original programming
As stations struggle, merge, and fold, pressure will be put on NPR and PBS to renegotiate station dues. With this will come inevitably lower revenue for both organizations, constraining expenditures on content licensing, reporting, and programming overall. Staff layoffs, and targeted reduction in programming will occur. They both hope no one notices: the flagship programs will remain, but with less support and a renewed imperative to raise more (often corporate) sponsorship dollars, often competing with the very stations that broadcast the shows.
‘Normalization’ of programming
The reduction of programming will lead to an overall streamlining and ‘normalization’ of public media content. In order to compete for eyeballs – and thus dollars – and simultaneously reinvent the organization for newer generations that don’t consider themselves ‘viewers like you’, a vigorous and commercially-competitive programming approach will be implemented to attract and grow the audience. Television, especially, is incredibly expensive and will demand a lineup compatible with top-dollar contributors outside the philanthropy community.
The public and independent media ecosystem is hit hard
As the normalization of programing continues, as station choice and content lineups continue to dwindle, the 10-15% of total budget starts to look bigger than anticipated. CPB didn’t just provide dollars, it also provided logistics, licensing negotiation resources with groups like ASCAP, BMI, and other rights clearing houses. It also served as a center of gravity for activity for many in independent media (the subject of a later post). Member stations – along with many other independent media efforts – have been flung out as if planets in a solar system with a star that suddenly disappeared.
Next: Alternatives for a public media cut loose from Uncle Sam
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