Broadcasting leaders explored current and future challenges for public broadcasting in a panel discussion moderated Monday evening by Gerhard Casper, president emeritus of Stanford University. The event was titled, “Does Public Broadcasting Have A Future?”
“Public television works very differently in different parts of the world,” said James Fishkin, communication department chair and the organizer of the event. “I feel a comparative discussion for where public television works well and why, and what it’s accomplished, would be interesting.”
According to Fishkin, one of the world’s most robust public broadcasting systems exists in the state of Bavaria, Germany, where panelist Ulrich Wilhelm serves as director-general of Bavarian Broadcasting.
“[We must] take advantage of [public broadcasting’s] strong point: quality,” Wilhelm said. “Serious reporting, expertise, objectivity…that’s our branding. This is the safeguard for the existence of PBS and NPR in America, which cannot survive by the law of the marketplace.”
Dan Werner, executive producer of MacNeil/Lehrer Productions and its flagship show, PBS NewsHour, agreed, highlighting the difference between public and commercial networks.
“By and large, [commercial broadcasters] have gone to the marketplace. They’ve gone to the lower common denominator,” Werner said.
Communciation professor Shanto Iyengar characterized commercial broadcasters differently.
“Commercial broadcasters consistently deliver soft news,” he said. “Basically, news about sex, sleaze and scandal.”
He added that a robust public broadcast system has far-reaching societal effects.
“Exposure to public broadcasting…reduces the inequality in the level of political knowledge,” Iyengar said. “It democratizes the distribution of political knowledge.”
Despite this, public broadcasting is in the midst of uncertain times, according to the speakers.
From 2008 to 2013, public broadcasters anticipate a $500 million dollar decline in funding, from $1.7 billion to $1.2 billion, Werner said, citing a statistic from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
But a drop in funding was only one of several problems the panel identified. Tim Olson, vice president of media and education at the San Francisco-based public broadcaster KQED noted a public information gap concerning taxpayer funding of public broadcasters.
“The amount of federal funding is greatly overestimated by the public,” Olson said. “The median guess [in an April CNN survey] was 5 percent of the federal budget – $178 billion dollars. The reality is that [public broadcasters receive] 1/100th of 1 percent of our national budget.”
There remains a lot to be optimistic about in public broadcasting’s future, Olson said.
“We’re able to use the benefits of the Internet,” he said.
Olson quoted David Fanning, head of the PBS program Frontline, who said “the technology has finally caught up with our mission.”
“We’ve always been about getting user participation. Now we have the tools to do it.”