I stumbled into an interesting conversation yesterday with some other university public television managers and found myself using the $1.8B public television economy as a yardstick for the investments we do or should make. It's an important measure because of the pushback we stations give annually for covering increased costs of our small (relative to that $1.8B) collective investment on the legacy side and because we have, I believe, an urgent need to make individual and collective investments in "being digital," to resurrect Nicholas Negroponte's great 1995 contribution.
It got me thinking afterward that it's a misleading yardstick if what one is trying to measure is what it takes to run our broadcast schedules. Unlike public radio -- which is much more a "pure play" economy -- public television is much more diversified. Just guessing, but instead of being more than double the size of public radio, apples-to-apples, public television may be only a quarter to a third larger.
From the earliest pre-PBS days, stations contracted with school districts and state departments of education for carriage of instructional programming during the school year. I've been in management since 1972 and a GM since 1978 and remember that diversification was urged on us for years -- education services, contract services, national program production, cable services. And we listened and did that.
My operation diversified in the direction of higher education services. What was a "pure play" broadcasting operation for both radio and television in 1978 has changed dramatically. Looking at cash revenues on an apples-to-apples basis, public radio here is 46% larger than public television. But looking at it the way our auditors do, it flips -- television is 61% larger than radio. It's the auditors, of course, that determine the $1.8B total. Perhaps we're an extreme example, but I'd bet that non-broadcast diversification has changed the financial picture of many other public broadcasting licensees as well.
This diversification makes for healthier organizations, so that's good (well, not always; as some stations have gone through hard times as the result of taking national production risks on our behalf), but nearly all the funding that supports this diversity of mission is restricted funding -- tagged by the source in such a way that it can't be spent on PBS dues or program fees or other broadcast spending. This restricted revenue generally counts the same as membership and other unrestricted revenue when it comes to establishing what incentive funding we get annually from the Corp. for Public Broadcasting (about 15% of the public broadcasting economy if any non-public broadcasters have read this far), but the unrestricted money that generates is double-taxed in the current PBS formula, so the net is small (and, in a few cases, non-existent).
I say all that not to complain about the formula but to simply remind us of why the discretionary part of public television's budget is very likely much smaller than the $1.8B the auditors say we have would suggest. If we're going to make progress on either sustaining our legacy operations or making the necessary and urgent investments in "being digital," someone ought to figure out just what is available. --Dennis