Public Broadcasting's Uncertain Future

April 24, 1981

Report Outline
Challenges and Uncertainties
Changes Proposed by Reagan
Future of National Public Radio
Special Focus

Challenges and Uncertainties

Problems Facing Public Broadcasting Today

Public Broadcasting, financially troubled since its infancy, today is facing a mid-life crisis. Both the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR) — the nation's non-commercial, non-profit television and radio systems — could lose 25 percent of their federal funds if Congress approves President Reagan's proposed budget for fiscal year 1982. This threat comes at a time when the chronically underfunded public broadcasting systems are struggling with serious financial troubles stemming from inflation. NPR President Frank Mankiewicz predicts that if the administration's proposed cuts go through as they now stand, all NPR programs will go off the air on Oct. 1, the start of the 1982 fiscal year. PBS President Lawrence K. Grossman has a similar, if less dire, prediction about what the proposed cuts would mean for public television. “With the cost of programming increasing at a fierce rate due to inflation,” he said in a recent interview, “major cuts are going to have to come in our programming….”

The unsettled funding question is only one of public television's problems. The ramifications of the technological innovations that have come to television broadcasting in recent years also threaten public TV. The rapid growth of cable television, which now reaches 23 percent of the nation's homes, means more selection for viewers. Instead of receiving a handful of local stations, cable viewers can pick up as many as 36 stations. These include all local channels, broadcasts from other cities via satellite, all-sports channels, an all-news channel, a network featuring children's programming and a number of pay services that show uncut, commercial-free films and other special presentations.

This switch from broadcasting to “narrowcasting” aimed at narrow sections of the viewing public affects public television in two ways. First, there is more competition. In many markets today PBS stations are no longer the only non-commercial alternatives to network-dominated television. Second, the three major commercial networks have set up divisions to explore cable programming. ABC and CBS will soon inaugurate their own pay-cable channels specializing in cultural programming; these operations will compete directly with PBS.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Feb. 19, 2021  Hollywood and COVID-19
Apr. 11, 2014  Future of TV
Nov. 09, 2012  Indecency on Television
Aug. 27, 2010  Reality TV
Jun. 20, 2008  Transition to Digital TV
Feb. 16, 2007  Television's Future
Mar. 18, 2005  Celebrity Culture
Oct. 29, 1999  Public Broadcasting
Aug. 15, 1997  Children's Television
Dec. 23, 1994  The Future of Television
Mar. 26, 1993  TV Violence
Sep. 18, 1992  Public Broadcasting
Oct. 04, 1991  Pay-Per-View
Feb. 17, 1989  A High-Tech, High-Stakes HDTV Gamble
Dec. 27, 1985  Cable Television Coming of Age
Sep. 07, 1984  New Era in TV Sports
Sep. 24, 1982  Cable TV's Future
Apr. 24, 1981  Public Broadcasting's Uncertain Future
May 09, 1980  Television in the Eighties
Oct. 25, 1972  Public Broadcasting in Britain and America
Mar. 26, 1971  Video Revolution: Cassettes and Recorders
Sep. 09, 1970  Cable Television: The Coming Medium
May 15, 1968  Television and Politics
Mar. 01, 1967  Financing of Educational TV
Dec. 16, 1964  Community Antenna Television
Oct. 21, 1964  Sports on Television
Feb. 28, 1962  Expansion of Educational Television
Aug. 28, 1957  Television in the Schools
Jan. 18, 1957  Movie-TV Competition
Sep. 06, 1955  Television and the 1956 Campaign
May 18, 1954  Educational Television
Sep. 03, 1953  Changing Fortunes of the Movie Business
Apr. 20, 1953  Televising Congress
May 31, 1951  Television in Education
Jan. 26, 1949  Television Boom
Jul. 12, 1944  Television
Libraries and Educational Media
Radio and Television
Regulation and Legal Issues