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Public Media Must Reimagine Itself for a New Era — or Give Up ‘Reason to Exist’

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Public Media Must Reimagine Itself for a New Era — or Give Up ‘Reason to Exist’

Current December 7, 2018
Public SectorOther
OtherCulture & Society

As I conclude my term on the board of directors of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, I find it safe to assume I’m not one of the more popular figures in the public media world.

After all, I publicly suggested — in the Washington Post — that the Trump Administration might have reason to propose an end to public funding for the system. But in asserting that public media should stop expecting a “handout,” I meant that it must not, 50 years after its founding legislation, expect that it can continue without acknowledging its critics and taking steps to adjust to a radically changed media environment.

Broadly, the public media system must ask the fundamental question: What would be its role if it were starting, today, from scratch?

That means, in my view, that the CPB board must, as should any corporate board of directors, not simply applaud the system but cast a skeptical, but constructive, gaze toward it. It should, more broadly, spearhead a fresh look at the fundamental role for public media today — a new look that should include revisiting the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act itself.

The guiding principle of public media must be the goal of filling a media role that helps inform and uplift the citizenry in ways that commercial producers fail to do. In reflecting on that goal, there’s no getting around the fact that American commercial “television” (if we can include Netflix and Amazon Prime in that category) is no longer the vast wasteland, as one-time FCC commissioner Newton Minow once called it. The productions that take “creative risks” (to quote one of the goals cited in the Public Broadcasting Act) simply abound and are too numerous to mention.

Moreover, a great many — think of Breaking BadOrange Is the New Black or The Wire — dramatize aspects of American society overlooked by a public media system charged with focusing on them. Instead, it specializes in importing British dramas. There are even emergent competitors to public media’s specialty in children’s programming. While public media continues to focus on young children, non–publicly funded media, such as Khan Academy’s online instructional videos, are proving demonstrably effective in raising student test scores.

Broadly, the public media system must ask the fundamental question: What would be its role if it were starting, today, from scratch? I’ve promoted one answer to that question, though I’m sure it’s not the only one: local journalism. The collapse of the economic model for local newsrooms and the vast reductions in the ranks of local newsroom staffs are just the sort of threat to a well-informed democratic citizenry that cries out for a public media role. What’s more, robust local journalism offers a way for the system to reach a wider demographic range of Americans (it is profoundly disappointing that fundraisers emphasize the upscale nature of listeners and viewers) — and to convince elected officials that public media deserves support. Good local content should, ideally, find a home in national programming.

But moving the system in that direction is no simple task — and makes clear the need for larger changes. The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 included support for radio as an afterthought and limited its support to 25 percent of federal funds. In the time since, NPR and local news powerhouses such as WNYC, WBUR, KPCC and KERA have become the face of public media for many Americans. (One PBS NewsHour reporter once told me that, at an airport, an admirer approached him to say that “I see you on NPR.”) But changing that simple formula alone requires a willingness to revisit the original legislation — and to acknowledge that the differences among video, audio and a wide range of online content (including the podcast revolution, which public radio has led) are quickly fading.

The broader problem is this: Unless local stations — I call them licensees, rather than stations — find ways to use their funding to produce content which can’t be found on smartphones and tablets, they will have no reason to exist. The system, including CPB, has to help them contemplate that challenge, rather than continuing in a well-worn status quo in which Community Service Grants are recycled back to PBS, NPR and producing stations — whose content will no longer be exclusively provided to “viewing” and “listening” areas. That means that station dues and the requirement that CSG funds be used to support NPR merit revisiting.

These are not the only assumptions of the system that must be questioned. The authorizing legislation requires that millions each year be directed to just one production entity for independent documentaries — at a time when documentary production has become widespread and inexpensive, and notwithstanding the fact that a great many of the films produced by the Independent Television Service tilt politically left and reach limited audiences. This is a case when competition is called for — and, again, change in the 1967 Act.

My focus on the CPB board has largely been on such matters of content — but “hardware” issues deserve rethinking, as well. Does it really make sense to invest limited federal funding in ensuring that all U.S. households will have access to “over-the-air” broadcast? It would seem to make far more sense to ensure that all households have access to high-speed broadband, which looms as the 21st-century equivalent of rural electrification. Again, changing the focus here requires revisiting the 1967 Act.

Finally, a word to those who will serve on the CPB board. Board members must resist cheerleading the system as it is and overlooking its flaws and limitations. As matters stand, at only one meeting a year is a “business plan” discussed, in which specific program grants are included. Board members, notwithstanding the fact that we are meant to be confirmed by the Senate because of expertise, are not asked to discuss programming priorities. Such discussion as there is occurs, indefensibly, in closed session. This is the public’s business.

Board members are not provided with a grant-by-grant justification for new programming. Crucially, there is no “after-action” report as to how programs were reviewed by critics or the extent of their carriage and audiences, both regionally and demographically.

No corporate board can do its job without asking for and receiving data as to whether new or existing strategies are showing positive results. Those results that should be reported annually include data as to which Americans are listening and watching — by metro area, by socioeconomic status, by state. Reaching a wider audience is the way, in the long term, to stem controversy about funding.

I am not, in any way, suggesting that board members interfere in any program production or make editorial suggestions. Indeed, predecessors of mine who focused on including “conservative” programming were, in my view, quite misguided. All programming should seek to provide a window on the issues and drama facing America. Good producers, reporters and editors should understand when relevant perspectives are missing, when tone, language and story selection betray bias. (One idea that requires no legislation: inviting outsiders of varying perspectives to offer a critique of the daily news broadcasts on NPR and PBS. Daily news critiques were routine during my years at WGBH.)

Much of the above, of course, are just one person’s ideas. It is incontrovertible, though, that the media world of 2019 barely resembles that of 1967. The time is right to re-examine basic assumptions about public media and to ask, anew, essential questions. That could well mean revisiting the 1967 authorizing legislation.

That should not, of course, be undertaken precipitously. One approach to consider: convening a new Carnegie Commission, the nongovernmental group that originally conceived public media in its landmark 1967 report, “Public Television: A Program for Action.”The title, if not all the findings, remains relevant. It’s once again time for action.

This piece originally appeared at Current (News for People in Public Media)

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Howard Husock is vice president for policy research and publications at the Manhattan Institute. He was appointed to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting board in 2013 by President Barack Obama as a Republican member.

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