Public Broadcasting: How Much Do You Care?

by , Jun 20, 2007, 10:15 AM
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This is the second piece in succession that I have penned for this column from a hotel room in London. Last week, I had just arrived; by the time you read this, I will be somewhere above the Atlantic on the final leg back into New York.

In just these few days I've had a number of conversations about the differences and similarities between American and British TV. I've also had plenty of opportunities to soak up and ponder the issue.

The bottom line is that despite the oft-stated declarations of our unique national identities, in terms of TV at least, we aren't really all that different. The most obvious proof of this is the extent to which formats translate and achieve similar success. In my week in London I stumbled across "The Apprentice" (different tycoon / tyrant), "Britain's Got Talent" (Piers Morgan again), "Big Brother" (admittedly more successful in the U.K. than in the US and this year featuring --bizarrely -- media man Jonathan Durden, the "D" in PHD) and "Deal Or No Deal." No doubt there are others currently running that have manifested on both sides of the pond, but these are just the ones that I saw this week and that come to mind.

All of this is not to say, of course, that there are not very real differences in what succeeds on TV in each country. Despite the fact that a good deal of comedy programming has traveled very well over the years in both directions (as has drama to a lesser extent -- though there's an imbalance in trade here, with the U.S. definitely winning on the exports front), much British comedy is either far too risqué for those sensitive folks at the Federal Communications Commission and those who pay their fines, or it relies too much on a mischievous delight in subversion that doesn't tend to translate to large audiences.

For example, there is now a buoyant domestic market for programs that subvert the game show format with scoring that makes no sense and that is frequently not even kept. Likewise, rules are applied in the most casual of ways, as the contestants -- generally comedians -- are given rein to entertain. Winning is a bit of an afterthought.

(It's interesting to note that "Whose Line is it Anyway" started life on BBC Radio in 1988, before making the transition to TV and then taking off internationally).

However, partly prompted by of the discussion on the TV Board over the past weeks concerning news, program content and so on, the thing that has struck me most is the similarity between the role and much of the content of both the BBC and PBS (and for that matter , NPR, but this is meant to be about TV).

Both produce programming unlikely to be delivered by other networks and they have an educational remit based in some concept of public service. The BBC, being that much better funded than its American cousin, does considerably more than PBS / NPR is able to do. It operates many more TV and radio channels, produces or commissions vast amounts of original content (much of it innovative and beyond the risk profile of any commercial broadcaster) and operates at the local level and on a global basis through BBC World Service and a news operation that genuinely spans the globe (though this is funded separately). Then there's the BBC's interactive and online side of things, which is considerable.

But the question on my mind doesn't relate to content or scale.

As many readers will know, the BBC receives the vast majority of its funding through the government in the form of what is known as the TV licence fee -- currently set at £135.50 per year (or free if you're over 75). It's regarded by many in the U.S. as a form of taxation, though I can honestly say I can't recall a single Brit referring to it in that way -- it's just part of TV in the U.K.. I'm sure if you ask people if they'd rather not pay it, many would say yes, without hesitation. But if you asked them if they'd mind losing the BBC as a result, I reckon a very sizable majority would say they'd prefer to carry on paying. It's difficult to draw a comparison, but I think the U.K. without the BBC would be like the U.S. without sport or Hollywood.

Bearing in mind the many comments generated by Jack Myers' post last week about the axing of "Studio 60" (virtually all of which displayed a lively desire for "quality" and "intelligent" programming that isn't all about getting mega-ratings in the first six weeks of a series), and similar comments to posts by myself and most other TV Boardsters on the subject of TV news, I find myself asking if people would ever support an equivalent to the TV Licence Fee in the U.S.?

If -- as in the U.K. -- the money generated went only to the public broadcast system, both PBS and NPR (and the stations in the affiliate network) would gain more funding and operational security and we would gain more of the kind of programming that many of us seem to want.

My gut instinct tells me that this would never fly in the U.S. for any number of reasons - too many vested interest to lobby against it; insufficient interest from the general public for what would undoubtedly be seen as a centralized tax; and maybe resistance from state and federal governments toward a broadcaster with an orientation toward quality programming and investigative journalism over commercial ratings (mostly).

Would enough people actually pay for this in order to get the kind of programming we want (and that many seem to think we aren't getting enough of)? Would you pay a licence (or, the U.S. spelling, "license") fee? Do we really care enough about public broadcasting (TV or radio) to actually pay something for it -- beyond the odd donation?

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