At this time last year, leaders of the Corporation for Public
Broadcasting (CPB), Public Television (PTV), and National Public
Radio (NPR) were calling their viewers and listeners stingy. Not in
so many words, of course, but that was in effect their argument when
they warned that they would not be able to make up any cut in or
elimination of public broadcasting's federal subsidy. Conservatives,
looking at history, argued that when taxes were cut (as Republicans
planned), people gave more to organizations they support, including
public broadcasting, and that if people truly liked public
broadcasting, they would not let it die.
Who was right?
Looking at the results of last year's public broadcasting pledge
drives, as reported in the Public Broadcasting Report, it looks like
conservatives were correct. Even without a tax cut, merely the
threat of cutting public broadcasting's subsidy spurred massive
increases in private donations early in the year. Later, when it was
clear that the federal subsidy would be kept, donations began to
Conservatives, in making their arguments, were standing on strong
historical ground. During the 1980s, when tax rates were cut,
individual donations to public television, for example, increased
every year. In fiscal year 1980 there were 2.6 million members of
PTV who gave an average contribution of $29.96 for a total of almost
$78 million. By fiscal year 1989 the number of members had doubled
(to 5.2 million) and the average contribution had increased steadily
(to $50.38), giving public television a total of $262 million from
individual members. In fiscal year 1991, after the Bush tax
increase, the number of individual public television members dropped
to 5.07 million.
Last year, when Republicans in Congress threatened to eliminate
or substantially cut public broadcasting's federal subsidy,
donations skyrocketed. The first bit of good news came in February.
KCRW-FM in Santa Monica, California announced that it had set a
record for on-air fundraising by a public radio station in its
February 6-14 winter subscription drive. According to the Public
Broadcasting Report (PBR), the station "raised $1.09 million from
14,314 new and renewing subscribers," a 26 percent increase over the
previous year. General manager Ruth Seymour told PBR that the debate
over federal funding spurred the massive increase: "I think our
audience understands that we are committed to the effort to keep
public radio noncommercial."
Then public television stations began to note a striking increase
in donations. PBR told its readers on March 24 that "PTV stations
across the country reported very successful spring pledge drives."
The Arkansas Educational Television Network, for example surpassed
its $350,000 goal despite reducing the time spent in pledge breaks
by ten percent. KRMA-TV in Denver and WETA-TV in Washington, D.C.
had record-breaking drives, with KRMA reporting a 13 percent
increase over 1994 totals and WETA garnering almost $1 million from
12,600 pledges, 62 percent of which were from new members. KCET in
Los Angeles finished its spring pledge drive with $1.68 million,
exceeding its March, 1994 drive, which lasted three days longer, by
Nationwide, PBR reported, the number of pledges for March were
"12.9 percent above March 1994 returns" and the total dollars
pledged were up 15.3 percent. Public radio had similar success.
According to PBR, "on average, stations did 15-40 percent better
during this drive than they did during last year's campaign." The
public radio stations that did "only" 15-20 percent better than the
previous year were "those who stopped once they reached their
The momentum was sustained through the summer. PBR reported on
August 25 that "indications are that the August PTV pledge drive
will be another hit in a year of overwhelmingly successful campaigns
that many have attributed to publicity involving projected federal
budget cuts." The number of pledges had increased a dramatic 18
percent over the previous August and pledge dollars were up 16
By December, though, when it had become clear that Republicans
were not going to eliminate federal funding for public broadcasting,
or even cut it substantially, pledge growth slowed. The December
pledge drive, according to PBR, collected seven percent more than
the December 1994 pledge drive, a healthy increase, but not at the
level of the astronomical increases of March and August.
The moral of the story: Viewers value public broadcasting enough
to increase their donations when federal funding is threatened. But
when it's clear the government will pay for it, they don't feel the
need to pay as much.
This should reassure public broadcasting executives. During last
year's debate, they didn't express much confidence in their
supporters. CPB Chairman Henry Cauthen predicted that if federal
funding were foregone, 87 public television stations would have to
be closed down. (He didn't point out, of course that this would
still give PBS more television stations than ABC, CBS, or NBC.)
Public Broadcasting Service president Ervin S. Duggan told TV Guide:
"I don't think public TV could survive and maintain its mandate
without federal funding. Survival would come at a cost of becoming
commercial. We'd be driven by ratings, not quality."
As the debate continued Duggan became so convinced that
individuals wouldn't ante up support for a privatized PBS that he
began to speak in harsh tones about the future of the network,
comparing privatized television to prostitution. He worried that
"commercialized public television is likely to resemble, for all the
world, Thomas Hardy's ruined maid: `no longer pure and simple,
brazenly working the streets in her new commercial finery, doing
whatever necessary to survive.'"
The evidence suggests Cauthen and Duggan were wrong. When federal
funding decreases, private funding increases. If members of Congress
really want to strengthen public broadcasting, then they should wean
it from the federal government and cut taxes.