Thursday, December 16, 2010

Should Government Be Subsidizing TV and Radio Media?

In Virginia, Governor McDonnell is proposing deep cuts in state support for public broadcasting, and we can expect similar efforts from new members of Congress at the federal level.

Some of our friends on the left will be disappointed at this, but we tend to agree with the governor on this one.

When television first came along, the idea of promoting public broadcasting was a good one. In many markets there were just three or four commercial broadcast stations, and only three national networks. Public television carried programming--largely educational and cultural--that would never see the light of day in the limited broadcast environment that existed at the time.

That has all changed, of course. Today, we have hundreds of television stations on cable and satellite. Some are built on the traditional commercial television models, others (such as HBO) on a subscription model. These stations cater to many specialty audiences.

Of course, public television (and radio) have many fine offerings. The question, however, is why can't those fine offerings simply compete in the regular television market. It's hard to imagine that one of Ken Burns' fine documentaries wouldn't find an audience on, say, Bravo or A&E.

As it is, public television and radio these days operate on a quasi-subcription model--but instead of subscribing, they have interminable telethon like fundraising campaigns that, frankly, are worse than commercials.

Most of the programming on public television and radio could easily survive in a commercial or subscription environment, and that which couldn't--well, maybe it shouldn't be on at all. In fact, freed of the strictures of public funding, the programming on "public" television and radio might get even better.

There may be an exception where public funding is justified--some of the state programming on public television is for educational programs used in schools. But the funding for that could easily be moved into the Education budget to avoid any public confusion on its purpose.

We don't see a strong continuing rationale for using taxpayer dollars to subsidize "public" television and radio. Most of that programming appeals to a very narrow audience, not the public in general. And while our lefty friends generally enjoy public television and radio, we can see why more conservative taxpayers would not. If NPR were to suddenly adopt a Fox-like slant, you'd see the end to Democratic support for such subsidies.

We need to make some hard decisions about what government should and should not be doing. This is a fairly easy one.

[Now, having said that, Governor McDonnell ought to take a hard look at some of the programs he likes that subsidize the business community. These are often disguised as "jobs" programs, but they almost always benefit a narrow segment of the private sector.]

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