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Federal Support Educational Broadcasting

Financial Arrangements, Current Scope of Services and Analysis of Impact, The Challenges and Opportunities Ahead

The U.S. federal government has always had a strong interest in broadcasting, but its relationship with the broadcasting industry was not formalized until the enactment of the Communications Act of 1934. The primary objective of this legislation was to clearly and officially assert federal, rather than private, control over all channels of interstate and international communications by wire and radio in the United States. The act created the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and within a broad range of regulatory power, this body was authorized to grant licenses to eligible persons and organizations for limited periods of time to operate radio (and by subsequent interpretation, television) stations "in the public interest, convenience, and necessity."

Radio, even from its earliest days, incorporated educational and instructional materials in its programming. Nevertheless, both radio and television broadcasting was mainly a commercial endeavor through the 1940s. The first significant action to spur educational television broadcasting on a national level came in 1952 when the FCC, revising its table of frequency allocations, set aside 242 channels for the exclusive use of noncommercial educational television (ETV). FCC actions in 1961 and 1966 increased this number to 329.

The University of Houston became the first institution to establish a noncommercial broadcasting station when it began operation of station KUHT in 1953. Encouraged by grants of $100,000 from the Ford Foundation, other stations came into being in such cities as Miami, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Denver, and Madison, Wisconsin. Nevertheless, the cost of building, equipping, and operating a television station remained prohibitive for many institutions, and by 1962 there were only eighty ETV stations on the air or under construction throughout the United States.

It became obvious that if the channels reserved by the FCC for noncommercial use were to be used as intended, federal funding would be required, and so Congress passed the Educational Television Facilities Act (Pub. L. 87-447) in 1962, which included $32 million in facility construction grants. By June 1967 the number of ETV stations on the air had more than doubled, to 175, with ten more under construction and grants to activate another thirty stations in process. When the ETV Facilities Act expired in 1967, Congress passed the Public Broadcasting Act, which broadened considerably the federal role in noncommercial broadcasting–most notably through the formation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).

CPB was set up as a private, nongovernmental, not-for-profit corporation to provide for the improved quality of "public" broadcasting (previously known as ETV) and for a live network interconnection of educational broadcasting stations. CPB began by establishing entities that would build on the common needs and interests of public broadcasting stations around the country, and create some of the economies of a broadcast network. The Public Broadcast Service (PBS) was incorporated in November 1969 to provide an interconnection, or a means of sharing programs, among public television stations, and a source of production funding. PBS was prohibited, however, from producing programs itself, or from owning and operating any stations. National Public Radio (NPR) plays a similar role in terms of interconnection for radio stations but, unlike PBS, it was chartered as a producing entity as well.

The activities of CPB, PBS, and NPR overlap in terms of their common mission to support public broadcasting, but their operations remain appropriately distinct. CPB receives a federal appropriation for public broadcasting and distributes it to TV and radio stations. The stations, in turn, can choose to become members of PBS or NPR, which in return fund (in the case of PBS) or produce (in the case of NPR) national programming, and both PBS and NPR provide the technical infrastructure necessary to distribute the programming nationally.

Financial Arrangements

Even with such generous support from taxpayers, the public broadcasting system (a $2 billion per year industry by 1997) receives just 17 percent of its revenue from the federal government. In addition to an annual appropriation to CPB, public broadcasting stations may receive federal funding through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) at the Department of Commerce, or through programming grants from various federal agencies such as the Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

NTIA money, funded through the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program (PTFP) has become particularly crucial as public broadcasting moves into the digital age. Massive infrastructure costs are being incurred for the transition to digital broadcasting that will ultimately increase channel capacity by a factor of five or six, and allow for a wide range of new interactive services for the benefit of the public.

Programming dollars from the Department of Education (and its predecessors) have supported children's programming from Sesame Street to Arthur. The National Endowment for the Humanities has supported extraordinary programming like Ken Burns's documentary The Civil War and continuing series such as the American Experience. Jazz, classical, and traditional music on the radio, and performance programs on PBS are supported through the National Endowment for the Arts.

Current Scope of Services and Analysis of Impact

The decentralized and inherently local nature of public broadcasting in the United States is intrinsic to its independence and unique brand of public service. At the same time, this structure limits a range of "efficiencies" that might be practiced in a commercial environment. Consequently, debates flare up on Capitol Hill regarding the role of federal funding in public broadcasting. But while there is little in the way of quantitative measures of public broadcasting's impact, the ongoing and overwhelming public support that is demonstrated when funding cuts are considered reflects a significant positive impression and impact on the American people.

The Challenges and Opportunities Ahead

The explosive growth of nonbroadcast (i.e., cable and direct satellite) television has provided a new level of competition to public television. The Discovery Channel, A&E, the History Channel, and Nickelodeon, among others, have built entire channels around particular genres that were previously unique to public broadcasting. Direct satellite radio began broadcasting in 2001, and may prove to be a similar challenge for public radio.

The Internet has also provided competition for public broadcasting, at least in terms of claiming another slice of time from each individual's media viewing. At the same time, however, the Internet has provided great opportunities to extend the impact of public broadcasting.

Both nonbroadcast television and the Internet have pushed public broadcasting to do what it has always done best: innovate. Public broadcasting must clearly demonstrate that it is a vital public service, and at the same time it must achieve a fine balance between sustainable financial practices while retaining an unimpeded, commercial-free environment to the satisfaction of its viewers and listeners. In an era when media outlets have essentially been consolidated into a handful of international conglomerates, the need for unbiased, public-interest broadcasting is as powerful as ever.


BEHRENS, STEVE, ed. 2000. A History of Public Broadcasting. Washington, DC: Current.

CARNEGIE COMMISSION ON EDUCATIONAL TELEVISION. 1962. Public Television: A Program for Action. New York: Harper.



CURRENT ONLINE. 2002. <www.current.org>.

NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO. 2002. <www.npr.org>.



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