Even in the UK, political pressure on the BBC is forcing its director general to attempt cutting costs by 20 percent. The big difference between the UK and the US, though, is the scale of the funding. In the UK, a license fee charged to every TV-owning household in the country raises more than $5 billion a year for the broadcaster—this from a domestic market roughly a fifth the size of the US. In the US, the total amount the CPB distributes to the public broadcasters is just around $400 million per year, which in turn is split between NPR, PBS, and many local affiliates.
In the US, PBS and NPR receive a mere $9.37 per capita in revenue, counting all sources of revenue—federal funding, donations, and sponsorships. That compares to $116.43 per capita in the UK and $54.03 in Japan, according to a recent report by the media advocacy group Free Press.
But the argument that the US compares poorly in its state and public investment in media is not one that gets much traction in the US. And many Americans do not think that the decentralized system operated here is necessarily a disadvantage. Even some of those involved in public broadcasting see decentralization as a plus. “The fact that NPR has zero control or authority over affiliate stations is not necessarily a bad thing,” says Schiller, the former NPR chief, now the chief digital officer of NBC News. “Independence of ownership is often a strength as these stations are closest to their audiences.”
Schiller is skeptical that there will ever be more public support for funding for public media than there is at the moment. “I just don’t see it,” she says. “Even journalists who work inside public media are conflicted about taking public dollars.”
Yet while public media may struggle for funding, it is having no trouble finding audiences. Schiller’s time at NPR might have ended with a series of controversies, but her two-year tenure saw a continuing growth in audiences and a focus on digital innovation. And at a time when the normal trajectory for ‘legacy media’ has been at best static, NPR’s figures have increased to around 27 million people listening to at least one NPR show a week, up from around 13 million in the late 1990s. Similarly, PBS claims a monthly reach of 117 million and an online monthly reach of 20 million.
Bill Clinton set public-media-advocate hearts aflutter in May, when he suggested an American or international entity, similar to “NPR or the BBC,” that would put out unspun truth and debunk Internet rumors. But privately, even those at the top levels of public broadcasting feel that this is unlikely.
What may be more likely is that a new ecosystem could spring out of current networks of professional and amateur news organizations, using the cheap or free infrastructure of the Internet to create traction.
Tom Glaisyer, a Knight Media Policy Fellow at the New America Foundation, for example, envisions the emergence of a connected world of public service publishing based around libraries, community groups, and journalism schools, many of whom are already active participants in publishing to local communities. Such a vision relies on the idea that the majority of newsgathering will fall to more dispersed sources, some of them professional journalists and many of them not. “These will be new information institutions, and look very different from what we had in the past,” says Glaisyer. Context and analysis might as easily come from experts in the field publishing their own material as from news organizations.