Tuesday, July 12, 2005 - The Progress & Freedom Foundation Blog

Public Broadcasting Subsidies: Welfare for the Rich and Well-Educated

There's been a debate raging in Washington recently about the future of public broadcasting. Paul Farhi of The Washington Post provides some details of this catfight and yesterday's Senate hearing on the matter in his column today.

I don't want to get into all questions about "bias" on PBS or NPR, although I think there's a lot less of it than others do. Indeed, I think there is a great deal of informative and entertaining programming on public television and radio that is not "biased" at all. I especially enjoy NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" as well as PBS's "News Hour with Jim Lehrer."

Are there some biased shows or personalities on public TV and radio? Of course there are. But I don't really think there's any more bias on public broadcasting outlets than any other media outlet these days. And I don't have any problem with the tilt of the bias being a little more to the left than to the right on these outlets. There's no way any of us could ever agree on what constitutes "perfect" balance TV or radio. Moreover, attempts to strike such a balance--even for public broadcasting--ultimately run afoul of the First Amendment since it interferes with the editorial discretion of the programmers. Finally, in our world of media abundance, there are plenty of other good outlets to which we can turn if we find any one outlet overly biased.

But let's put aside these allegations of bias on PBS and NPR and instead ask a different question regarding the fairness of how public broadcasting operates and is funded.

One of the things I like to throw in the faces of the lefties who favor more NPR/PBS funding is that fact that public broadcasting subsidies are little more than welfare for the upper class. Here are some stats I reproduce in my latest book:

>> a comprehensive 2003 survey of National Public Radio listeners by Medimark Research revealed that 73 percent have a household income over $50,000 and 49 percent have a household income of $75,000. The mean household income for NPR listeners is $85,675. In addition, 58 percent have a college degree and 28 percent have attended graduate school. These numbers are all much higher than national averages. The survey also reported that NPR listeners "are much more likely than the general public to travel to foreign nations, to attend concerts and arts events, and.. spend more on products and services." PBS surveys produce similar results with audience demographics being well above national averages.

In sum, PBS/NPR supporters are just fooling themselves when they holdout public television and radio as the great educator/entertainer of the masses. The masses aren't watching or listening. Even in the days when it only had three primary rivals, PBS could rarely get the attention of more than 2 percent of the total TV audience. "[W]hen you no longer need the skills of a safecracker to find PBS in most markets, you have to realize that the reason people aren't watching is that they don't want to," notes television journalist Jeff Greenfield.

So next time someone tries to pull this "it's-all-for-the-little-guy" argument in support of PBS/NPR funding, make sure to thank them for subsidizing you viewing and listening habits if you happen to be well-educated and in the upper-income bracket. And then ask them how fair it is that millions of lower income households are the ones footing the bill for subsidizing the well-to-do in our society.

posted by Adam Thierer @ 9:52 AM | Mass Media