Making the case for public broadcast funding


RBR-TVBR exclusive
As the debate rages in Washington on whether or not tax money should be dispensed to public radio and television, WEDU-TV (PBS) Tampa President and CEO Susan Howarth has already had experience with such cuts. Her station and others in Florida saw their state funding suddenly disappear in the current budget year. She’s now making the case that government funding of public broadcasting is worthwhile at both the state and federal level.

Howarth spoke Friday (1/13) to The Broadcasters Club of Florida in Sarasota. And while the “fiscal crisis” for public broadcasting has been pretty much a constant since she took her current job in April 2010 (from WCET-TV Cincinnati), the public TV veteran insists that “there’s really never been a better time and a better opportunity for public media. In particular, she noted the 2012 election and said the serious discussion of politics and issues on such programs as the PBS “NewsHour” and coverage by public radio and television is “rivaled by none.”

Having gotten state funding for over 30 years in Florida, public broadcasters were shocked when Governor Rick Scott (R) used his line-item veto power in May to eliminate $4.8 million which the state legislature had approved for the state’s public radio and television stations.

“We are optimistic that we are making progress and that some of our funding will be restored,” Howarth said of discussions with the governor’s office and the state legislature.

So, public broadcasters in Florida have already dealt with the funding challenge facing NPR and PBS affiliates nationwide at the federal level. According to Howarth, public broadcasting is an efficient way to educate and deliver information to the public. She wonders why anyone questions taxpayer funding of public broadcasting, when there seems to be consensus to fund similar institutions, such as libraries. “I think there is a role for government funding for public media,” the WEDU CEO said, adding that the money is pretty small, about $1.35 per person at the federal level. And, she noted in Q&A, public TV stations don’t receive any retransmission consent payments from cable systems.

Even as public broadcasters deal with budget cuts, they have been re-emphasizing their original role of helping schools to educate students. Howarth said Florida school teachers have been sent information on how to find online streaming of programming segments which fit with the state’s standards for each grade. That’s been well received and the broadcasters are now seeking grant money to create an even more Florida-centric program for schools.

On the cost saving side, most of Florida’s 13 public televiision stations are also seeking a grant to create a statewide master control for programming which would free up funds for more local programming. 

Asked about opportunities to target traditional advertisers on non-broadcast platforms, such as website banners and ads within online streaming, Howarth said “we’ve pushed the envelope a bit in that direction,” but she said there’s not a lot of money to be made there yet. Also, she noted, the public broadcasters have to maintain the public trust and protect their brands when it comes to commercialization.

Like other public TV executives, Howarth said she got plenty of emails when NPR fired Juan Williams, since many people confuse NPR with PBS. “I want them to succeed, she said of the radio side of public broadcasting,” and added that she has great confidence in new NPR CEO Gary Knell, who came from Sesame Workshop.

RBR-TVBR observation: Like it or not – and fair or not – PBS and NPR are viewed as two sides of the same coin by much of the public, including many Members of Congress. So the smaller radio side of public broadcasting makes it harder for the TV side to defend its public funding. Several in the audience at the Sarasota gathering suggested either a British-style TV license fee or a long-term trust fund to finance public television. But it was also noted that such plans would eliminate congressional scrutiny of public broadcasting – and, boy do Members of Congress like to scrutinize public broadcasting!