12 April 2012

Keeping Politically Curious on Public Broadcasting

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has struck down the ban on political advertising for public radio and television stations on a 2-1 vote.  But Judge Carlos Bea affirmed the ban on for profit companies advertizing goods and services.

The stated legal logic is:

Public issue and political advertisements pose no threat of ‘commercialization'..."Such advertisements do not encourage viewers to buy commercial goods and services. A ban on such advertising therefore cannot be narrowly tailored to serve the interest of preventing the 'commercialization' of broadcasting.

Be mindful that this is the Ninth Circuit, has a reputation of being the most overturned federal jurisdiction. But for this election cycle, prisoners of PBS might be praying for telethons rather than the onslaught of election ads.

In the abstract, this ruling may be a good thing for public broadcasters.  Conservatives have long felt that PBS and NPR slants markedly left in its coverage and sensibilities. It might be profitable for them to get paid for broadcasts.  But a close reading of the US Code indicates that public broadcast stations can not substantially relying on underwriting acknowledgments for funding their operations.

It might be interesting to learn how much underwriting spots cost, as it could be a cheap way for underdogs or even ideologically insurgent (read Republicans) to introduce their ideas to public broadcasting viewers. Of course, denial of political sponsors on public broadcasters could generate some earned media for campaigns as well as exposing the nearly translucent veil of impartiality by many public broadcasters.

While it is more of a political than an judicial issue, Minority Television Project v. FCC might spur a rethinking of the 1967 Public Broadcast Act in our information overload area and perhaps a retooling of the FCC itself by Congress. When there were only a few choices on the television dial, it made sense to have an alternative which supported niche programming.  Now cable, satellite, digital over-the-air multicasts and internet streaming offers an alluvia of choices for consumers.  In this changed media marketplace, it might make sense to rethink TV.

There are also some absurdities in Public Broadcasting.  It used to be that public broadcasters relied on the largess of wealthy individual underwriters (or their trusts) to sponsor favored programming like “Masterpiece Theater”.  Underwriting can now be done by corporations, but not to commercialize products.  So there tends to be warm fuzzy branding for the corporate sponsor, even with moving images-but no commercials (sic).  Really?

Public broadcasting is not a fledgling operation either.  Eighteen months ago, KCET in Los Angeles, one of the founding members of PBS in 1970, decided to become an independent public broadcaster because PBS wanted to charge $7 million a year for their West Coast flagship station’s broadcast rights, which was double the assessment of KOCE, This assessment comprised 5% of PBS overall budget.  The KCET executives may be ruing their decision to declare independence, as they had to sell their Hollywood Studios to the Church of Scientology for $45 million.  Alas, KCET’s new mixture of Al Jazeera English and BBC News has not helped, as contributions were down 41% in 2011.

When Juan Williams was unceremoniously fired by then NPR CEO Vivian Schiller, it was revealed that only 2% of National Public Radio’s budget came from federal earmarks.  If that's the case, then cutting Federal funding and allowing these public stations to establish alternate primary income streams should be simple.
Of course, this rosy budgetary situation for NPR greatly assisted from the $200 million endowment by the widow of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc in 2003.  But NPR does not rest on it’s laurels for funding, as it was happy to accept $1.8 million from George Soros Open Society Foundation to hire 100 political reporters.  Public broadcasters have programming staples like “All Things Considered”, “and Morning Edition” on the radio and shows like “Sesame Street” and NOVA on PBS which could enhance bottom lines with merchandising agreements .  As it stands, the underwriting ads now are all but commercials.  The Minority Television Project case may facilitate a restructuring which allows stations to better support themselves and networks to underwrite their costly programming.

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