Public Broadcasting: Hello, Britain!

The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) of the United States is the national network that supports 354 American public television stations. Like CBS, NBC, ABC, and FOX, PBS is without doubt a quintessentially American institution.

Until two weeks ago, that is. On November 1st of this year, PBS launched a new service called PBS UK, bringing its lineup of educational shows to the British television audience. Now Americans will no longer need to worry about losing touch with their favorite Sesame Street characters, or losing track of the “hot” political stories on PBS News Hour, when they visit Britannia! Bert and Ernie, as well as Jim Lehrer, Gwen Ifill, and Judy Woodruff, will only be a click away from them.

But critics in the federal government have threatened to slash funding for public broadcasting programs for many years; how does this new trans-Atlantic business opportunity affect their views? Are these critics now more likely to seek to eliminate funding for PBS … or to expand it?

Public Television: A Brief History

Although some Americans believe that public television has been on the air since the initial emergence of the visual medium during the 1950s, that impression is actually not correct. Though nonprofit television has been broadcast on a nation-wide basis for almost sixty years, the federal government did not step in and begin funding educational television until the late 1960s.

From 1954 until 1966, the Ford Foundation funded a private nonprofit network called National Educational Television (NET), which gradually evolved from a broadcaster of adult education programs to a producer of socially conscious documentaries. In 1967, as the Ford Foundation began withdrawing its support because of fiscal constraints, the U.S. government established and began funding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which then assisted NET’s evolution into PBS in 1970.

Conservative critics initially began accusing NET of liberal bias in its documentary programming during the 1960s, and have continued accusing PBS of similar political bias in more recent times. Some critics have also accused nonprofit public television organizations of relying on federal government monies when they are capable of identifying their own private sector funding sources; the recent PBS UK arrangement may indeed serve as an apt illustration of their beliefs.

PBS: Pros and Cons

On the one hand, PBS supporters can easily argue that the network must be producing quality programming if European viewers are eager to gain access to it. Although iconic shows like Sesame Street had been aired in more than 140 countries before PBS’s recent expansion efforts, the network itself had remained focused on the American market until British market demand compelled it to expand into the United Kingdom.

PBS supporters can also argue that, in an era of diminishing foreign aid and cultural exchange budgets, the extension of existing PBS programming to foreign nations may help promote American diplomatic interests in a cost-effective manner. By showcasing American values, PBS may even be able to mitigate the negative impact of recent reductions in the geographic distribution of the Voice of America, America’s global radio broadcaster into remote geographic regions.

On the other hand, with contemporary conservative commentators like Bill O’Reilly continuing to heap criticism on liberal PBS icons like Bill Moyers, the UK distribution deal may lend credence to their assertions that PBS should be required to compete in the market for funding along with other nonprofit networks — as well as the many for-profit networks, for that matter. It’s easy to understand why many believe that PBS may not need to rely on federal funds if it is capable of earning broadcast fees in global markets far from home.

Global Competitors

Whether PBS is capable of thriving without the federal government’s assistance is a question that can only be answered by the accountants with access to its internal books and records. There is no question, however, that a global competition is now thriving among nations that seek to project their interests through television network programming.

Historically, of course, the United Kingdom has shared its culture, values, and traditions with the world through its continuing support of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). But we have also witnessed the recent rise of France24, Japan’s NHK, Russia Today, and various government supported Arabic news networks. Even business news is now ripe for such competition, as evidenced by the recent agreement between Bloomberg LP and Saudi Arabia’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal to launch Alarab in the Middle East.

We now live in an internet dominated media age when nations are waging wars for the “hearts and minds” of global populations through such television programming; it is thus easy to understand why many support the continued existence of a publicly funded American flagship network. Nevertheless, as the U.S. government’s financial resources continue to wane, PBS may have no choice but to continue identifying new funding opportunities to finance its growth plans.