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Let Public Broadcasting Die

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Posted on December 13 2010 11:00 am
Walter Hudson is a political commentator and co-founder of Minnesota's North Star Tea Party Patriots, a statewide educational organization. He runs a blog entitled Fightin Words. He also contributes to True North, a hub of Minnesotan conservative commentary. Follow his work via Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.
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While channel surfing a couple years back, I stumbled upon a program on Twin Cities Public Television (TPT) called Lost Twin Cities. It was a fascinating documentary of the oft-changed architecture and infrastructure in the Minneapolis/ St. Paul metropolitan area. I was impressed. So I coughed up the cash to become a member of TPT in exchange for the program on DVD. That is to say, I saw value in a particular product and was willing to pay a price to obtain it.

The following year, TPT called looking for more money. However, this time they had no product I desired. I declined further voluntarily contribution. Despite that, I remain compelled through taxation to pay for public broadcasting.

There is an insidious aspect to this arrangement which has troubled conservatives and libertarians for many years. Public broadcasting is vaunted by some among the Left as a voice of the people unadulterated by commercial influence. However, the truth is quite apparently the opposite. Commercial television serves the public interest far greater than subsidized programming ever could. Given the shifting political climate in Washington, there is fear among its advocates that public broadcasting could come to an end.

Should the government turn off the spigot, National Public Radio and Public Broadcasting Service will likely have enough corporate and donor support to limp along, but jobs will be lost and popular shows will have to be canceled. On a local level, some of the thousands of public television and radio stations will almost certainly have to close up shop.

To the degree that federally defunded public broadcasting would “limp along,” it would do so by adjusting to market forces, the quaint predicament under which all other broadcasters operate. Viewers and listeners like you and me would continue to contribute voluntarily, either directly or through support of advertisers, so long as the product added value to our lives. If public broadcasters cannot do that, if they cannot provide value, than their operation is not entitled to survive.

Let us dispense with the notion that government-subsidized broadcasting serves some esoteric public interest. To regard subsidized broadcasting as the voice of the people is to ignore a lesson in economics. Through unfettered market activity, people vote with their dollars to determine which products ought to be produced and which services ought to be offered. Professed populists may counter that some people have more dollars with which to vote than others, and they would be right. If individuals are not adding enough value to society to earn more dollars, it’s doubtful their time ought to be spent consuming media, public or otherwise.

The interest which any government subsidy serves is political. Whereas market-induced broadcasting responds to the will of consumers (i.e. the people), so-called public broadcasting responds in large part to the political interests of the insulated institutions which support it. Advocacy of government-subsidized broadcasting thus advances the notion that those institutions know better than us what kind of media we ought to consume.

Though PBS and NPR have made strides to wean themselves off federal funding and diversify their sources of support, public money still represents a big slice of their budgets. For NPR, federal support makes up some 10 percent of its total funding, while PBS receives approximately 15 percent of its funding from the [federally-funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting].

In theory, they could redouble their appeals for corporate, viewer and listener support, but losing that money would jeopardize their ability to provide the same level of programming.

This concern is expressed as if “the same level of programming” is something sacrosanct which a decent society ought to preserve. It is not. Popular programming could undoubtedly be supported through a market-driven business model. Otherwise, why should anyone be forced to support programming from which they gain no value?

The end of public broadcasting would be the end of a decades old coercion servicing political interests at the expense of the people. Merely stating that federally defunded programming would have to adjust to market forces is not a defense of public broadcasting.

Walter Hudson is a political commentator and co-founder of Minnesota’s North Star Tea Party Patriots, a statewide educational organization. He runs a blog entitled Fightin Words. He also contributes to True North, a hub of Minnesotan conservative commentary. Follow his work via Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

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