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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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January 1996


Issue Review: Donations Rise as Funding Threatened
Federal Funding of Public Broadcasting

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 level off.

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 $205,127.

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 goals."

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 percent.

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.


Rich Noyes


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