Funding for Public Broadcasting Is Just 0.01 Percent of the Federal Budget. It Should Still Be Eliminated.

Spending $445 million to save-not Big Bird-but the jobs of the people who work in the industry.


About 70 percent of federal funding for public broadcasting goes to subsidize the operations of about 1400 local radio and television stations that primarily just rebroadcast national programs to their surrounding communities. The money isn't primarily going to programming, which is

Save Big Bird |||

why slogans like "Save Big Bird!" miss the point. If the Trump administration were to eliminate federal funding for public broadcasting, shows like Frontline, Nature, All Things Considered, and Fresh Air would survive. (As would America's favorite 8-foot yellow canary, who recently migrated to HBO anyway.)

These 1400 stations—a vast, taxpayer-supported distribution network—are becoming increasingly unnecessary now that viewers like you can access NPR and PBS programming through the internet. As I argued in a recent video, federal funding is actually making it harder for PBS, NPR, and their affiliated content producers to fully embrace the Netflix-like approach to distribution that would best serve their audiences. Those who truly love Big Bird (and don't want to see PBS further cannibalized by media organizations with more robust revenue models) should favor eliminating federal funding.

A common argument in favor of the status quo is that the $445 million devoted to public broadcasting amounts to just 0.01 percent of a $4 trillion federal budget. But just because something's comparatively cheap doesn't mean it's worth buying year after year. Writing for the Nieman Journalism Lab, Nicholas Quah makes an even weaker case for maintaining government support for public broadcasting. "Epstein may well be right that pulling federal funding might lead to more efficient and innovative outcomes," Quah writes in reference to my video. The problem is that "evolution necessarily yields losers:"

[The argument] never really fully reckons with and takes responsibility of the human cost of the resulting layoffs, the organizational complexity attached to structural transitions, and the simple fact that evolution necessarily yields losers — which is fine if we're talking about markets distributing doorknobs, but totally sucks for markets distributing public goods like civic-oriented news, emergency signals, and supplemental forms of public education. Look, I'm as critical about the public broadcasting system's predisposition for inertia and its many, many, many problems as the next guy, but I'd much rather see a transition to the future that takes place under conditions of strength and volition, not one under unnecessary duress and survival.

First of all, the local stations wouldn't disappear all at once without federal funding. Revenue and cost-savings through the recent FCC spectrum sale could keep even poorer rural stations up and running for years. And yet this "transition to the future," as Quah puts it, would eventually cause most to shut down, leading to some "duress."

Quah should familiarize himself with one of capitalism's foundational theories, Joseph Schumpeter's concept of "creative destruction," which holds that the market process that brings an ever rising standard of living inevitably leaves some people worse off.

The takeaway from Quah's piece: The case for maintaining federal funding for public broadcasting is to save—not Big Bird—but the jobs of the people who work in the industry.

Watch "Why Government Funding Hurts PBS and NPR:"

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  1. Why not abolish all federal spending?

    Too many parasitical progressive-socialist Republicans, including the 38% who support the carnival barking crony-capitalist in chief, won’t allow their gravy train to be ambushed!

    The white man has gotta have his social security and his Medicare and his Obamacare.

    1. You forgot his drone strikes.

  2. Who is this “public” and why can’t they afford TV? You can get basic cable for about 40 bucks a month, maybe less. Over the air HD signals are free with a 3 dollar antenna.

    1. Well, more like a $30 antenna (rabbit ears don’t cut it anymore), but yeah, that’s what we did. Cut the fucking cord and got an antenna. The picture is actually better OTA than through cable, at least the shit signal we got from Comcast anyway. I’ve heard other providers are better. I watch the hell out of PBS now since I pick up 4 of them along with their subchannels.

  3. Who needs Big Bird when you’ve got all this equally shitty mandated E/I programming for free?

  4. Has literacy improved or worsened since Sesame Street came on the air?

  5. BUT DOOD!!! They’re gonna use that money to build the wall!!!

  6. Here’s a little of tomorrow’s leaks today: friday morning OMB will passback to the agencies their FY18 budgets that will go to Congress in about a month. The agencies will have till monday to review them and appeal back. The word out on the street is that the career OMB staff had nothing to do with it and it was done by a dozen dudes at the Whitehouse.

    Big picture: agencies that don’t have anything to do with fighting Weed, Mexicans or Muslims are getting hit with 15-25% cuts. That’s going to be a big, fine Wall.

    How much the Republicans in Congress buy into is going to be… enlightening.

    1. It will be like every other budget out of the White House: DOA

  7. Holy Muppet Jesus, 445,000,000 dollars is just one one-hundredth of a percent of the federal budget? And it takes $445 million to produce public television?

    1. For $445 million, I’d expect fewer ripoffs of British TV.

  8. I am just old enough to vaguely remember when the argment was being made that a ‘publicly funded’ news source would provide an ‘unbiased’ check on the Three Networks.

    That is to say, somebody was saying, with a straight face, that a news organization paid (at least in part) by government funds would be unbiased.

    The mind boggles.

    If the people who love PBS so much want to keep it, then they can pay for it. And, given the small percentage of themoperating funds that (the PBS fans assert) that actually comes from the government, they CAN pay for it.

    So, we should either defund it, or change the name to PPN; the Progressive Pravda Network.

  9. I’ve never really gotten the argument that since something is only a small part of the budget, it shouldn’t be cut. No one is claiming that that cut alone will bring the budget into balance. And if you can’t economize on the small stuff, how the hell are you ever going to anything about the big stuff. The government shouldn’t be in the broadcasting business in the first place. No, $445 million isn’t going to fix the deficit. But, you’re never going to find the will to cut the bigger things if you can’t even cut things like this.

  10. When I suggested this to an acquaintance, I was told the local ‘public TV’ is no longer supported by the fedgov. He claimed that was true, since it only gets 25% of it’s budget from there.
    I mentioned that any business which gets 25% of it’s income from a particular customer is beholden to that customer.
    I don’t care how much it is to the fedgov, just how much it is to a supposed ‘independent’ source of information.
    Take it out behind the barn and shoot it.

    1. And please sub “its” for “it’s” twice.

  11. Porn or GTFO

  12. Elmo knows where you live Jim Epstein!

    1. In the Spanish-language version of Sesame Street, Elmo is a gay puppet named El ‘Mo.

  13. The point is that PBS is a broadcasting paradigm for the 20th Century. Trains were the transportation paradigm for the 19th Century. Cars became the transportation paradigm for the 20 Century.

    I can get FOUR(4) PBS stations where I live. They all have the same programs on at the same time. Why do we need FOUR(4) all providing the same programming which is at least half the time asking for more money?

    Julia Childs was the only chef broadcasting then. Now there are SEVERAL channels devoted to cooking. Even Sesame Street has left PBS.

  14. Don’t pull the plug on useful public institutions unless you know there is an equivalent alternative. Public broadcasting is one of the few broad-based media where I have ever heard libertarianism get a fair hearing. Or would you suggest that libertarians should not agree to appear?

  15. The lifetime cost of a single F-35 buys a year of CPB-funded programming that is utilized by millions of citizens. Poor kids get to see Sesame Street for “free” because it’s OTA. Public radio/television has produced some of the most popular quality programming of all time, and the argument that it’s unnecessary could’ve just as well have been made at any point in its history (and has). Why do we give Universities money for research? Couldn’t the DowDupontWalmartMegaCorp do that instead and make money at it? I’m sure they love doling out the cash for some guy who is just curious to see if he can get proteins to fold a certain way. Business values knowledge over profit, everybody knows that.

    The argument that it’s cheap and we get a lot in return is a principal reason to keep it–FFS you’re writing for REASON magazine–everything is about the money. It’s a lot better than giving it to Lockheed, too (not like we’ll ever stop feeding that furnace). Another BS argument from libertarians, the most predictable, ideologically-soaked group of “why can’t they just be like me I got an engineering degree and don’t need government handouts at the moment” hypocrites.

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