Saturday, April 30, 2011

Public TV: An Alternative History

In science fiction we often speak of “alternative histories”—thus how things might have been had we decided things differently in the past. What if the U.S. had remained a neutral in World War II, for instance? The other day I got to thinking about another alternative history. What if the U.S. had rejected, rather than embraced, a market-based approach to public communications, particularly television?

This came to mind as Congress once more prepared to starve or entirely to rob PBS of public funds. Then Market Size Blog yesterday published (here) data on the BBC’s licensing fee income in 2010. That triggered this post. It brought to mind Brigitte and me, a young couple, watching television in Germany. No ads in sight. Television is a genuine public enterprise over virtually the entire world today, and has been since its dawn. Television is supported by a licensee fee imposed under state law. In some places TV is supported by governments grants alone—no fees—but in most places a fee is charged, usually per household; other users (hotels, corporations, etc.) pay a fee per set. It is only in the United States that television is entirely commercial, only here that public TV is a minor player, an also ran, underfunded, the Begging Channel.

Now it is a fact that TV (with radio) has become a complex industry. Generalizations understate the complexity, but, well, here goes. In most advanced countries today Channels 1 and 2 (as they tend to be called) are public; other channels, sometimes numbered, sometimes named, feature advertising. Generally these other channels only have a relatively small market share. And, significantly, in most countries households have to pay to use the airwaves—even if people only watch commercial television or listen to commercial radio. They cannot opt out. The airwaves are treated as a national possession. So are they here—but here we’re giving them away to commercial interests.

This said—I looked up what fees are levied in Germany, the United Kingdom, in France, and in Japan. Wikipedia provides a very handy site for this purpose here, showing fee or grant structures across the world. In the case of Germany and the United Kingdom I also checked the numbers independently by consulting websites in each country. Here is what I found, going from highest to lowest; I’ve converted monthly fees-per-household to dollars at the most recent exchange rate: Germany - $26.68, United Kingdom - $20.27, Japan - $17.84, and France - $14.60. These are, as stated, charges per month; they include TV and radio. If no TV is registered a lower radio fee is charged; in Germany, for instance, the radio-only fee runs $8.55 per month.

Now I got to wondering what might have been had the United States adopted this method of funding television back when that medium first appeared in the 1950s. We have 117.5 million households in the United States, and television penetration is at the 99 percent level. We also have 1.3 million doctors offices, approximately 2.5 million hotel rooms, 6 million corporations of some size, and 18,000 nursing homes. We could add to that college dormitories, military establishments, not-for profit corporations, etc. Let us, in round numbers, assume another 12 million licenses to add to our households, thus 129.5 million all told. And let us assume that we pay Germany’s rate, a round $27 per month or $324 a year for each license. That would produce $41.958 billion a year in fee income for a national public television system.

Now you might wonder. Isn’t that just a drop in the ocean of U.S. television advertising revenues? Well, let’s take a look. Total U.S. advertising revenues, for all media, were $131.1 billion in 2010 according to Kantar Media (the gatekeeper on this subject here). Television represents approximately 38 percent of that, thus $49.8 billion. Suddenly our fee-based projection isn’t just a drop any more. It represents 84 percent of all the money our current television depends on for its programming. And indeed, in most other countries, where some commercial television is present, the commercial slice is also roughly that size, ranging upward of 10 percent.

Just imagine the alternative history we missed: sixty years of television—news, documentaries, and entertainment—uninterrupted by advertising. Sixty years of entertainment uninfluenced by advertising—thus driving the programming to an ever lower, ever more sex- and violence-drenched content in effort to hold an ever-more-jaded audience.

But what would the programming have been like? Well, we know what it would have been like. We can and we do watch it, usually on PBS. We watch and love British, Australian, and less frequently French and German shows. The programming would have blended the extremes of American ideology, a little to the left of center, perhaps (as in Britain), but not very far. Brigitte and I recall that, in Germany, weekend programming tended to be kitschy, but most of the time it was elevated in content and responsible—rather than exploitive—in tonalities. The mysteries and spy-thrillers were tense. The love stories romantic. The channels showed plenty of sports; and the same old sports prattle. We’re not talking Soviet TV here.

I wonder. Would the U.S. public have benefitted from avoiding the storms, winds, tornadoes, indeed tsunamis of unremitting, concentration-destroying commercialism that have washed, thundered, and swept over two generations of Americans? Might the level of public discourse been a little more elevated? And would we, perhaps, have wasted less of our wealth on junk?

We’ll never know. That’s how it is—with alternative histories.

1 comment:

  1. Not every Brit is so enamoured with the TV tax:
    http://www.turnoffyourtv.com/international/bbc.html

    Me? I grew up on Doctor Who, BBC World News (via Shortwave Radio), not to mention re-runs of Star Trek, Lost in Space, etc.

    And as for American TV... well, there are real gems out there now: House, Bones, Mythbusters, Modern Marvels, almost anything from the History Channel... WWII in Color is one of the best series I have seen. Let's not forget Discovery's Planet Earth, Insectia, and other's in amazing HD. Nation Geographic's Taboo, Great Migrations, and others.

    Plus I have my choice of news, not just the official government line as presented by the Government Media. I can watch Maddow and Mad Money Cramer in the same day... sort of the "Jerry Springers" of news. Or I can watch more serious endeavors, both left and right.

    Take the Vietnam war. In the same day I can watch a leftist view of the war on CNN or NatGeo about how horrible it all was. I can watch a right wing rah rah by Oliver North about how our guys were "right". I can watch a middle of the road, "just the facts" on the Military channel or History Channel. Heck, I can even watch Anthony Bourdain or Andrew Zimmerman eat their way across Vietnam!

    So, American TV is in the spirit of America: a vast expanse of amazing diversity. Some of it crassly commercial, some of it gently "Sponsered" by various corperations.

    There is simply no way we would have gotten such diversity with the top down model of TV taxation.

    Nor does such an alternate world feeding me government approved "poi" tempt me at all, our current system is vibrant, growing and stimulating... warts and all.

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