Hot Topic - Public Broadcasting - License Fee
Populism as a political force is fueled by angst. It’s a simple as that. The dressed up language of freedom, free-markets and free thought is just so much hot air next to good, old fashioned fear and loathing. Sometimes that moves voters; recently, to be sure. But sometimes voters reject the rants and bombast in favor of perspective.
Scratch the surface of any particular debate about public broadcasting and a rash quickly swells up. Private sector broadcasters itch to grab listeners and viewers who would so obviously stream to their channels. Publishers see a fountain of youth, all ready to subscribe. Politicians, splinter and otherwise, are tormented by that "independent" monster waving bad news, robbing them of entitled glory or, usually, shade. It is tempting, then, for public broadcasters to break out in hives.
From the earliest days of broadcasting listeners - and later viewers - in many countries contributed to transmitter and program costs through a tax levy on receiving equipment. Over time public broadcasting emerged in Europe and elsewhere from state operated systems. The household license fee formed, in part, the financial basis for independence from political and commercial influence. Several public broadcasters were able to leverage brand strength from this independence. Neither politicians nor competitors have been pleased.
The most successful business models rise from inspiration. History teaches well and boundaries are essential for creative solutions. Stealing ideas works, too. It’s all fair game and public broadcasters need not be shrinking violets.
Listeners, viewers and – now – surfers generally give public broadcasters high marks for value. While the standard funding mechanism – the license fee – is less than ideal alternatives are hard to find. But how public broadcasting is funded is inextricably tied to purpose. Competitors and the politicians who love them want to shrink public broadcasting and everything it does. And they’re coming for the money.
The enduring contradiction in public broadcasting policy is demand versus cost. Various constituents expect high quality programming, everywhere, all the time and lots of it. None of that comes cheap. Finding a balance can be a terrible job.
The biggest challenge for public broadcasters, say some, isn’t funding. Even the richest public broadcasters feel the heat, from commercial broadcasters, new media, publishers and, of course, the politicians. It’s existential. And the long debate sometimes runs out of time.
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