Commentary

Public Media Ideally Suited For Digital World

Public broadcasting may be better situated for the digital transition than its commercial broadcasting counterparts, having forged its fortunes on content bound by special interests, political issues and civic action. But it could be obscuring its own passage to financial sustainability through interactive ties with its close-knit constituents.

The potential hurdles are long-held perceptions in the nonprofit public media space, and in public broadcasting in particular, about what constitutes commercial endeavors. These were cut-and-dried notions in an analog world. Video streamed online and downloaded to mobile digital devices and user-generated content exist without marketing support. Advertising is transcending to more sophisticated interactive connections with targeted consumers; transactions, marketing research and ongoing rapport can be honed over time.

In that context, content can exist without being considered commercial as traditionally defined by the broader public media world, most prominently represented by public broadcasting and NPR. As the lines between commercial and non-commercial blur, public media can better leverage and strengthen its mandated objectives using new digital technology and develop new, acceptable ways of generating revenue. It can virtually reinvent the membership, donation and foundation formats. Only 15% of its funding comes from government sources, despite the perception that public broadcasting is reliant on "public," tax-supported funds. It can fortify its corporate support in these economically stressed times by providing a safe, efficient connection to consumers.

PBS' revered flagship "The News Hour" epitomizes the challenge, crippled by the recent loss of its 14-year sponsor Archer Daniels Midland. At the same time, Exxon Mobile, no doubt spurred by the negative public sentiment over outrageous petrol prices, has reentered the public broadcasting fray after several years' absence and its longtime support of "Masterpiece Theater" and "Nova."

While public broadcasting as we know it is struggling to survive, public media--defined by the Center for Social Media as "media for public knowledge and action"--is thriving. Digital interactivity is tailor-made for public media projects that rely on grassroots creativity and foster civil activism. Participatory tools and platforms give public media makers the opportunity to secure their own financial futures--but first they must grapple with existing distribution structures and reassess deeply held reservations about commercialization and commerce. Indeed, the Internet is a leveling force that provides both noncommercial and commercial media with the opportunity to redefine and reinvent their businesses.

The sense of urgency about public broadcast's hybrid future is being heightened by cable channels such as Discovery, History and Travel, which siphon special-interest viewers. They are effectively assuming many of the educational functions and audiences once attributed to public broadcasters, while commanding licensing fees and advertising revenues. They are demonstrating that producing informative and socially relevant content can be fiscally and socially responsible--and economically successful.

By some measures, public broadcasting already has embraced this dynamic. CSPAN remains a one-of-a-kind open book to the inner workings of government, civic and intellectual life for only cents of the cable dollar. The nonprofit operation receives no government funding and relies almost exclusively on cable and satellite operator fees, which are continually reinvested.

Viable alternative business models are only now beginning to emerge as public and commercial broadcasters wrestle with the emergent digital convergence and the obsolescence of their distribution and technology models. The platforms have shifted from conventional television to user-generated and controlled unfiltered communities such as Google's YouTube, News Corp.'s MySpace, Wikipedia and LiveJournal. The digital frontier has given rise to users as content producers and distributors of their original works: citizen journalists and blogging experts. It makes all media truly participatory.

That bottoms-up approach could give public broadcasters and public media broadcasters a decisive advantage, provided they explore new interactive revenue-generating options to offset the loss of traditional funding. The decline in corporate underwriting by nearly half for core series such as "News Hour," "Masterpiece Theater" and "Nova" is a troubling trend threatening quality public programming, even at a time of abundant digital options.

In digital media's long-tail world, public broadcasters and media makers can serve as a catalyst for constructive change. There is every reason to believe that public media's mission will be consistent with the Web, at least according to its inventor, Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Emerging social networks, as well as new systems of review and rule, "will produce new ways of working together effectively and fairly which we can use globally to manage ourselves as a planet."

Wednesday's On Media column will explore some of the emerging business models that will ensure the future of public media--and particularly, public broadcasting--in a global digital interactive marketplace better suited to its needs. Note: This is the first of a two-part column on the future of public broadcasting and public media. Part two will appear Wednesday, June 18.

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