The public broadcasting system’s inclusion of a premium access service on its digital streaming app is sparking debate over whether government funding gives it an unfair advantage in the streaming wars.
PBS’s streaming app offers current affairs programs such as “PBS News Hour” and “Frontline” for free – and its separate PBS Kids app also offers all of its children’s shows, including “Sesame Street”, at no charge.
But PBS Passport offers ad-free access to full seasons of its most popular drama shows, like “Call the Midwife,” for viewers who donate at least $5 a month or $60 a year to most local stations. This “member benefit” appears to mirror the basic “subscription plan” that Discovery+ sells for $4.99 per month to watch similar public service programming with ads.
Michael Warder, director of California-based Warder Consultancy, which provides financial services to businesses and nonprofits, said Thursday that PBS’ December 2015 entry into the world of members-only streaming made it “a prime candidate for the elimination” of annual congressional funding.
The former Pepperdine University vice chancellor says it’s hard to justify taxpayers funding digital entertainment with a national debt exceeding $30 trillion.
“With the advent of cable television, the Internet and other means of communication since PBS’s inception in 1969, the American taxpayer funds the equivalent of horse and buggy transportation,” Warder said. .
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“It’s time to separate it and let it stand or fall on its own as a non-profit organization,” he added.
Conservatives have long lobbied to end the annual Congressional stipend that has funded the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) since 1968.
Under federal law, the CPB distributes taxpayer money from the allowance directly to locally owned and operated stations affiliated with PBS, National Public Radio, and other public media entities.
The CPB did not respond Thursday to a request for comment.
But its website says it received $465 million in federal appropriations for 2022. This included $232.79 million in “direct grants to local public television stations,” $77.97 million in “subsidies television programming” and grants spent on radio stations and administrative costs.
Eleanor Hawkins, PBS’s senior director for external communications and media relations, told The Washington Times in an email that PBS Passport was launched in 2015 “as an additional member benefiting local stations” and that it “is not a subscription service”.
“That is, if you donate to your local station, you will have access to an on-demand digital library of PBS content,” Ms. Hawkins said in the email.
Because PBS includes the service for viewers who are already donors, it doesn’t track the share of donations from people seeking digital-only access to its programs.
It also does not track overall subscriber numbers as they are linked to the separate finances of over 350 local stations.
But Ms Hawkins said the federal investment in PBS amounts to $1.40 for every US taxpayer – and for every dollar in federal funding, PBS raises an additional $6 through viewer donations and private grants.
“PBS has the ability to reach more people than its commercial competitors, especially those in underserved communities with little broadband or cable access,” Ms. Hawkins said in her email.
Angelica Gianchandani, who teaches business at the University of New Haven, said the streaming app gives PBS “an innovative way” to bring its library of on-demand programs to a “younger generation” of potential donors. .
“As an organization, PBS has leveraged technology and digital content to create new revenue streams to boost its donor base,” Ms. Gianchandani said.
More Gen X viewers pay for TV and streaming services than older Americans, she added.
“It’s an attractive offering with easy flexibility, device compatibility, low cost, customization and no ads,” she said.
Some economists believe this gives PBS an unfair advantage over its private competitors.
“PBS now charges extra for the premium content it generates at taxpayer expense,” said Walter Block, who teaches economics at Loyola University in New Orleans.
“That in itself is unlawful [because] people have already paid for this information [and] they shouldn’t have to pay for it a second time,” Mr Block told The Times.
Daniel Lacalle, chief economist for Tressis’ financial services in Spain, said it was also problematic because of the “political biases and lack of independence” seeping into government-funded media.
“It is virtually impossible for a government to fund a truly independent and ethical media enterprise,” Mr. Lacalle said.
“It’s even harder to accept that a taxpayer-funded media service should charge for premium content. It is double taxation,” he added.
Mr. Lacalle cited a “crowding out effect” that results from public sector companies accessing government money at lower rates than the private sector, giving them better access to funds and credit on better terms than the private sector.
This allows them to absorb credit that might go to private companies, creating a potentially unfair advantage in years of crisis or tight credit markets.
Some Congressional Republicans have made consistent efforts to defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Rep. Doug Lamborn, a Republican from Colorado, has introduced bills for more than a decade to cut taxpayer funding from PBS and NPR.
On May 20, he filed HR 3411 in the current legislative session to amend the Communications Act of 1934 to prohibit federal funding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting after fiscal year 2023.
“It’s time for Big Bird to earn his wings and learn to fly on his own,” Mr. Lamborn said.
The bill, which the Energy and Commerce Committee referred to a subcommittee a day later, is unlikely to reach a vote in the Democratic-controlled House.
In 2011, the GOP-controlled House passed Mr. Lamborn’s party-oriented legislation, but it died in the Democratic-controlled Senate.