Public Broadcasting Subsidies: Welfare for the Rich and Well-Educated

by on July 12, 2005 · 6 comments

There’s been a debate raging in Washington recently about the future of public broadcasting. Paul Farhi of The Washington Post provides some details of this catfight and yesterday’s Senate hearing on the matter in his column today.

I don’t want to get into all questions about “bias” on PBS or NPR, although I think there’s a lot less of it than others do. Indeed, I think there is a great deal of informative and entertaining programming on public television and radio that is not “biased” at all. I especially enjoy NPR’s “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered” as well as PBS’s “News Hour with Jim Lehrer.”

Are there some biased shows or personalities on public TV and radio? Of course there are. But I don’t really think there’s any more bias on public broadcasting outlets than any other media outlet these days. And I don’t have any problem with the tilt of the bias being a little more to the left than to the right on these outlets. There’s no way any of us could ever agree on what constitutes “perfect” balance TV or radio. Moreover, attempts to strike such a balance–even for public broadcasting–ultimately run afoul of the First Amendment since it interferes with the editorial discretion of the programmers. Finally, in our world of media abundance, there are plenty of other good outlets to which we can turn if we find any one outlet overly biased.


But let’s put aside these allegations of bias on PBS and NPR and instead ask a different question regarding the fairness of how public broadcasting operates and is funded.

One of the things I like to throw in the faces of the lefties who favor more NPR/PBS funding is that fact that public broadcasting subsidies are little more than welfare for the upper class. Here are some stats I reproduce in my latest book:

>> a comprehensive 2003 survey of National Public Radio listeners by Medimark Research revealed that 73 percent have a household income over $50,000 and 49 percent have a household income of $75,000. The mean household income for NPR listeners is $85,675. In addition, 58 percent have a college degree and 28 percent have attended graduate school. These numbers are all much higher than national averages. The survey also reported that NPR listeners “are much more likely than the general public to travel to foreign nations, to attend concerts and arts events, and.. spend more on products and services.” PBS surveys produce similar results with audience demographics being well above national averages.

In sum, PBS/NPR supporters are just fooling themselves when they holdout public television and radio as the great educator/entertainer of the masses. The masses aren’t watching or listening. Even in the days when it only had three primary rivals, PBS could rarely get the attention of more than 2 percent of the total TV audience. “[W]hen you no longer need the skills of a safecracker to find PBS in most markets, you have to realize that the reason people aren’t watching is that they don’t want to,” notes television journalist Jeff Greenfield.

So next time someone tries to pull this “it’s-all-for-the-little-guy” argument in support of PBS/NPR funding, make sure to thank them for subsidizing you viewing and listening habits if you happen to be well-educated and in the upper-income bracket. And then ask them how fair it is that millions of lower income households are the ones footing the bill for subsidizing the well-to-do in our society.

  • http://WeMatter.com Mike Liveright

    I have two sets of thought/questions.

    1) Re: Your point — Yes the numbers show that PBS viewers are richer than the population, but:

    1.1) I also suspect that the Tax payers are richer than the population. Thus though PBS may be viewed by the richer, it is paid for by the richer?

    1.2) Only 15-25% of the PBS budget comes from the Federal Government, The other comes from other sources, so perhaps this also changes who pays for it.

    1.3) I suspect that other public services, Libraries, Schools, etc. also are more used by the richer…

    1.4) Finally, even if the richer view more, the poorer do also view and so it may still be a social good to have the PBS programming available as a different style of programming for all of the population.

    Personally, I do agree with you that the Federal Funding should be eliminated, as it is a smaller part of the PBS funding, as should the Federal control of PBS as the members, localities, and businesses support most of the PBS costs.

    ===================================

    The other area (Delete if appropriate) is you book. “Media Myths”. I am interested in the concept of Open Source content. I note that the book is available as a PDF file, via your link, but does not seem to be able to be ordered from Barns and Noble
    . http://search.barnesandnoble.com/bookSearch/isbnInquiry.asp?r=1&isbn=1930865716&popup=0
    (yet), I wonder what you experience is with respect to making the book available.

    2.1) Do you or your publisher feel that you are loseing many sales by linking to a PDF file?

    2.2) Have you thought about also linking to lulu.com to allow those of us who might want a copy, less professionally published, but available, to get a copy? (at least until it is published)

    2.4) Finally? have you thought about setting up anchors in you PDF file and a discussion group, forum… so that as people felt they agreed/disagreed… with specific topics they could comment on them?

    Personally, I am interested in the concept of open source content, Collaborative Books, http://www.wematter.com/links.htm#collbook, and am trying to understand if authors and publishers are also supportive of such mixed distribution models.

    P.S. I have added your PDF file into this section, but if you request, I’ll remove it.

    Thanks…

  • http://WeMatter.com Mike Liveright

    I have two sets of thought/questions.

    1) Re: Your point — Yes the numbers show that PBS viewers are richer than the population, but:

    1.1) I also suspect that the Tax payers are richer than the population. Thus though PBS may be viewed by the richer, it is paid for by the richer?

    1.2) Only 15-25% of the PBS budget comes from the Federal Government, The other comes from other sources, so perhaps this also changes who pays for it.

    1.3) I suspect that other public services, Libraries, Schools, etc. also are more used by the richer…

    1.4) Finally, even if the richer view more, the poorer do also view and so it may still be a social good to have the PBS programming available as a different style of programming for all of the population.

    Personally, I do agree with you that the Federal Funding should be eliminated, as it is a smaller part of the PBS funding, as should the Federal control of PBS as the members, localities, and businesses support most of the PBS costs.

    ===================================

    The other area (Delete if appropriate) is you book. “Media Myths”. I am interested in the concept of Open Source content. I note that the book is available as a PDF file, via your link, but does not seem to be able to be ordered from Barns and Noble
    . http://search.barnesandnoble.com/bookSearch/isb
    (yet), I wonder what you experience is with respect to making the book available.

    2.1) Do you or your publisher feel that you are loseing many sales by linking to a PDF file?

    2.2) Have you thought about also linking to lulu.com to allow those of us who might want a copy, less professionally published, but available, to get a copy? (at least until it is published)

    2.4) Finally? have you thought about setting up anchors in you PDF file and a discussion group, forum… so that as people felt they agreed/disagreed… with specific topics they could comment on them?

    Personally, I am interested in the concept of open source content, Collaborative Books, http://www.wematter.com/links.htm#collbook, and am trying to understand if authors and publishers are also supportive of such mixed distribution models.

    P.S. I have added your PDF file into this section, but if you request, I’ll remove it.

    Thanks…

  • Adam Thierer

    Mike… Thanks for your note. Regarding selling my “Media Myths” book… we’re getting around to it but we’ve been in the middle of big office move and haven’t had time to get it on B&N or Amazon yet. Of course, selling the book isn’t our first priority; getting it out to the public is. That’s one reason we’ve put the PDF online for free downloading. Of course, if we could sell a few copies and help cover the printing costs, that would be nice! Finally, I like the idea of collabrative books too, but it takes a little work to make that happen. I might try to do that, however. Thanks again for your input and suggestions. – - AT

  • Adam Thierer

    Mike… Thanks for your note. Regarding selling my “Media Myths” book… we’re getting around to it but we’ve been in the middle of big office move and haven’t had time to get it on B&N; or Amazon yet. Of course, selling the book isn’t our first priority; getting it out to the public is. That’s one reason we’ve put the PDF online for free downloading. Of course, if we could sell a few copies and help cover the printing costs, that would be nice! Finally, I like the idea of collabrative books too, but it takes a little work to make that happen. I might try to do that, however. Thanks again for your input and suggestions. – - AT

  • http://www.livejournal.com/users/dereklane/ derek lane

    It may be worthwhile to split NPR (radio is cheap and NPR popular) from PBS (expensive and unpopular) for discussion. A rough guess for CPB funding of all types for radio is $100 M/year (CPB claims 25% of its budget goes to radio). NPR claims to be mostly independent of federal funding (~1%), but may potentially be supported indirectly from CPB support of radio stations. NPR also claims ~26M users/wk, up from ~2M/wk in the 80s. PBS seems to have 10x fewer viewers. This is a large difference.
    These numbers may support criticism that NPR is crowding out commercial providers. Success has its problems.

    From my standpoint, my average funding for NPR is ~10x the $2/househould (50M households) or $5/user (~26M users) .
    Compare this to the thousands I spend per year for federal taxes, much of goes to support things ($billions for various subsidies; stream of money required to keep the phone companies mollified as they prepare to snoop my conversations). I find it easy to support NPR given the much larger flows going to things of less direct benefit to me.

    I agree that NPR is mostly about a privileged demographic, but disagree with arguments for cutting funding based indirectly on liberal guilt. The strongest argument I can adduce for cutting federal funding is allowing complete freedom from public overview for NPR. The standard argument for CPB support is concentrated on support in small markets. I am in a large market and am not in a position to decide what the trade-offs (freedom vs wider dissemination) are.

  • http://www.livejournal.com/users/dereklane/ derek lane

    It may be worthwhile to split NPR (radio is cheap and NPR popular) from PBS (expensive and unpopular) for discussion. A rough guess for CPB funding of all types for radio is $100 M/year (CPB claims 25% of its budget goes to radio). NPR claims to be mostly independent of federal funding (~1%), but may potentially be supported indirectly from CPB support of radio stations. NPR also claims ~26M users/wk, up from ~2M/wk in the 80s. PBS seems to have 10x fewer viewers. This is a large difference.
    These numbers may support criticism that NPR is crowding out commercial providers. Success has its problems.

    From my standpoint, my average funding for NPR is ~10x the $2/househould (50M households) or $5/user (~26M users) .
    Compare this to the thousands I spend per year for federal taxes, much of goes to support things ($billions for various subsidies; stream of money required to keep the phone companies mollified as they prepare to snoop my conversations). I find it easy to support NPR given the much larger flows going to things of less direct benefit to me.

    I agree that NPR is mostly about a privileged demographic, but disagree with arguments for cutting funding based indirectly on liberal guilt. The strongest argument I can adduce for cutting federal funding is allowing complete freedom from public overview for NPR. The standard argument for CPB support is concentrated on support in small markets. I am in a large market and am not in a position to decide what the trade-offs (freedom vs wider dissemination) are.

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