s p | p b p a | 2008 / 2
U.S. public broadcasting aces proound challenges as amass media service entering a disintermediated digital era. Itapproaches those challenges with both chronic strengths andweaknesses. Its strengths include a clutch o highly visibleand trusted brand names (PBS, NPR,
), acreative and ar-ung talent network, and a highly balkanizedstructure, which invests unders and audiences in the survivalo individual entities, especially local stations. Its weaknessesinclude an audience that skews old and is getting older,particularly or television; a reputation or elitist programming;and that same highly balkanized structure, which inhibitsdecision making to respond to the changing environment.In an increasingly segmented media marketplace,public broadcasters still aim to educate and inorm thebroadest possible swath o Americans. Radio in particular hassucceeded in attracting new listeners in the past decade. Butprogrammers and stations struggle to both maintain currentaudiences and engage new ones across a quick-shiting arrayo new platorms and devices.Public radio and television operate in very dierentways, and their record o providing public aairs and newsis also very dierent. Public radio has consistently since1969 provided high-quality, innovative, daily news programs,which are the backbone o the service and attract the largestproportion o listeners. Competition among public radioprogram services has helped to increase the diversity o voicesand ormats. Meanwhile, public television—in part becauseit has been under much tighter scrutiny politically—hasstruggled with news provision. Its one daily news program, anhour long, is in a traditionalist ormat and is produced by anindependent production house. Public aairs documentariesand series struggle or placement in a service better recognizedand appreciated or its children’s and cultural programming.News and public aairs provision is a core unctiono public broadcasting, and garners enormous trust ratings—aeature that is in short supply in participatory news media.However, uture news and public aairs programming willrequire genuine interactivity and listener/viewer choice andparticipation to remain relevant. This has been a major obstacleor a service that has been rewarded or its eudalistic stability.Eorts to develop nationwide public aairs programmingor the emerging digital TV channels have been stymiedby a lack o unds and the complications o implementingshared solutions in sharply dierent local contexts. Publicbroadcasters have conducted isolated experiments ininteractive and participatory media, with mixed results. Toolsand unds or reliably measuring the impact o such projectshave not materialized, and commercial yardsticks do not trackthe public benefts o such media. Public broadcasters havealso proposed a variety o common digital platorms, withoutconsensus or resolution. Although several organizations arehelping stations to coordinate around solutions, no singleorganization is positioned to lead the ull range o publicbroadcasting entities through digital and online transitions.Public broadcasting’s resources and assets arevaluable today and hold great potential value or tomorrow’snonproft online media sector. The sector will have to transormto ulfll that potential—the question is how. Scenarios includegoing local, going national, partnering up, or fghting it out,each o which oers opportunities to those who care aboutpreserving the public service media.
U.S. public broadcasting is a rare animal internationally;compared to the majority o state or public broadcastersaround the world, the government unding it gets is tiny andits role in defning the national news agenda intermittent. Yetit is actively scrutinized as a potential source o liberal bias byconservative legislators and watchdogs, who loudly criticizeit as a waste o taxpayer money. U.S. public broadcastingdeveloped in a prooundly biurcated way, with radio andtelevision evolving separately into highly distinct services.Both, however, were created and exist within the U.S. massmedia regulatory regime. Both operate on spectrum reservedby the FCC specifcally or noncommercial (
“public”)broadcasting. Both play signifcant, though dierent, roles inshaping the American news and public aairs diet, and bothprovide news and public aairs programming that are rarelymatched in the commercial environment.
Public broadcasting has always been a small, niche service inthe United States. In act, it was created as an aterthought.Legislators, helped along by corporate lobbyists, between
public broadcasting & public affairs:
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Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University