A 2016 study of 18 western nations for Canadian public broadcasting showed the state-funding leader was Norway at more than $134 per person. Less than half of that, and you have about France’s $54 per capita. At less than a fourth of what Norway pays, Italy spends $28, while our neighbors to the north commit $21. How much does the U.S. spend? Around $2 per person per year – the lowest of all countries studied. In fact, the U.S. spent less than 4 percent of the average of the 18 western nations studied.
Let’s be clear. The U.S. government support of public broadcasting funds less than one-fifth of the total budget. The vast majority of funds come from other sources, notably corporate underwriting and private member contributions. But the stations most likely to suffer the most from cuts will be those in small markets, where federal funding makes up a greater percentage of the total operating budget. The greatest risk is in the places with the fewest free, over-the-air media choices.
It does no good to note the federal government spent more on vacations for employees on administrative leave, or a single F-35 fighter jet, since the argument is not that public broadcasting is less wasteful than other government programs. The argument is that public broadcasting improves the quality of life for Americans in ways commercial service do not.
Public broadcasting has faced budget cuts before, and the argument is always the same. “The marketplace” will provide the things that government-supported broadcasting provides. That ignores reality. The trend in America today is fewer households paying for cable or satellite. Certainly the poor are less likely to have paid television services, so all the variety purported by marketplace proponents is not available to those who don’t pay a subscription fee.
The Smithsonian has billions of dollars of art and history in its collections, yet we don’t look to sell off the artifacts to balance the budget. You don’t destroy a national treasure for a few million dollars or even a few billion. It’s an asset you’ll never be able to duplicate. That would be shortsighted. Public broadcasting is also a national treasure.
Dom Caristi is a Ball State University professor of telecommunications.