Creating More Knowledgeable Americans via Public Broadcasting

Sep 3 '13

This is a guest post by Patrick O’Mahen, a fellow at at the University of Michigan’s Weiser Center.


Last week, The Monkey Cage highlighted new research by Stuart Soroka and colleagues, suggesting that watching public broadcasting increases political knowledge. In his comments, John Sides noted that the problem in the United States is that few people watch public broadcasting, limiting any practical benefits. My own research concurs with and extends both Soroka and colleagues’ conclusions and Sides’ practical criticism. Watching public broadcasting not only seems to increase political knowledge, but also reduces knowledge gaps between haves and have-nots. However, historical development of national broadcasting systems awarded first-mover advantages to public broadcasters in most European countries and commercial broadcasters in the United States. As a result, public broadcasting in our country has always faced an impossible uphill fight against established commercial networks.  But I have a modest proposal that might help.

As Soroka et al. conducted their study, I independently found that across 14 western European countries, watching public broadcasting increases correct answers to political knowledge questions by roughly 12 percent, but only in countries that subsidize public broadcasting. That both studies generated similar results at different points in time, using different data, with different countries and different methods strengthens the argument that public broadcasting increases political knowledge – although questions about correlation vs. causation remain.

But even if public broadcasting increases knowledge, this may be less salutary news if this increase is concentrated among the relatively rich, well-educated people who already are politically knowledgeable. In this case, public broadcasters would actually worsen political inequality – not a catchy slogan for an NPR pledge drive.

Fortunately, I find that watching public broadcasting reduces knowledge gaps between rich and poor people:

omahenfig1Score one for Mr. Snuffleupagus.

However, that happy result leaves the problem that Americans rarely consume public broadcasting. The good news is there is a proven way to ensure a long-term influence and a large audience of public broadcasting. The bad news is that the time to implement the solution was in 1927.

As I argue here, the initial conditions under which broadcasting systems formed in the 1920s and 1930s determined how much sway public broadcasters have nearly a century later. For example, Britain awarded a public national broadcaster a monopoly on the airwaves, which froze out commercial broadcasters from the early development of radio. With a monopoly, the public broadcaster easily dominated early development and gained a massive first-mover advantage in broadcasting.

In contrast, the United States declined the opportunity to develop a national public broadcaster and let commercial broadcasters dominate early development, although thriving non-profit and public interest sectors survived into the late 1920s. When Congress did finally move to regulate the industry under the Radio Act of 1927, the regulations sharply favored commercial broadcasters and banished public broadcasters to the dusty low-power corners of the spectrum.

Canada’s policy found a middle ground. Commercial broadcasters dominated the early development of radio. But when the government regulated the industry in the early 1930s, it moved to counter American cultural influence and to improve service of rural Canada by creating a national broadcaster. However, the commercial broadcasters had enough influence to retain their existing frequencies.

In all three countries, the early move created a self-reinforcing system. Listeners grew used to and supported the status quo. Technical expertise developed within the existing broadcasters, leaving them better able to pioneer new technology, such as television. Finally, the dominant interests in each country were able to influence government officials as they developed new broadcasting policies.

Unsurprisingly, Britain and similar countries now have the highest current audience share for public broadcasting, followed by the mixed system of Canada, which is present in Australia and Japan as well. Lagging behind are the United States and other countries with policies that initially favored commercial broadcasters:

omahentable1Despite the disadvantages that public broadcasters have faced in the United States, there may still be a way to encourage public broadcasting.  Instead of developing yet another TV channel or website, perhaps we should try the philosophy of advertisers. Create a news organization (I’ll call it NewsComm) to research and produce 30- to 90-second story blocks that can run during commercial breaks on television and as pop-up or banner ads on popular websites.

NewsComm would be funded by an endowment raised from one-time donations by charitable organizations, university systems, states, localities and individuals, matched from the proceeds of a temporary federal sales tax on televisions, computers, smart phones and other electronic devices. The organization could be run by a board of governors named in equal proportions by the federal and state governments, non-profit donors and by the journalists employed by the organization. Federal employee scales could set standards for compensation.

NewsComm seems unorthodox, but it builds on political advertising’s success in educating viewers. Colleges, states and foundations already fund public broadcasters in the United States, while a tax on electronic equipment has been used in other countries to fund their public broadcasters. The beauty of NewsComm is that the government finances are short-term levies to build an endowment, which shields taxpayers over the long term and ensures the financial independence of the organization from the government of the day and the pressures of commercial advertisers.

Let’s say for example that NewsComm was able to amass a $20 billion endowment (roughly equivalent to the United States spending half of the GDP per capita that the BBC spends annually). Spending 3 percent annually would create a budget of $150 million to spend on capital needs and employees while leaving $450 million to spend annually on advertising space – roughly the amount of a major presidential campaign.

True, it’s difficult to present in-depth stories with nuance in 30 to 90 seconds, but in an age of Twitter, these challenges already exist across all news media. They are also partially surmountable – look at the masterful short posts on places like Wonkblog or Economix in traditional media outlets.

The NewsComm method also has several advantages. First, unlike news broadcasts, NewsComm stories can be run multiple times across multiple outlets – for days if necessary. Second, because the stories would have to be produced in advance, they would have to focus on ongoing policy debates instead of chasing the latest scandals and frivolity.

Perhaps NewsComm is gimmicky. But as the fragmenting media market decreases the audience for public broadcasting, we need to find new ways to provide the knowledge that citizens need to hold elected leaders accountable. And if an advertiser can promote one ridiculous trick to cut 15 percent of your belly fat in a week, wouldn’t it be great if we could use this one ridiculous trick to boost political knowledge of citizens by 15 percent in a year?