If not zero it out entirely, the budget Gov. Bobby Jindal will present tomorrow should initiate a debate on reducing the state’s appropriation to the Louisiana Educational Television Authority.
In light of the too-candid admission of a former National Public Radio executive that its part of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting did not need public funding, calls have intensified to remove taxpayer dollars from supporting NPR and the CPB’s television arm the Public Broadcasting Service. Nationally as of 2009, state governments provided 14.2 percent of revenues to radio and 22.5 percent to television (including in-kind support from universities).
In Louisiana, finding comparable figures are difficult. The LETA, which oversees the six Louisiana Public Broadcasting stations, is somewhat cryptic in its state funding sources because some of it is indirect. For example, while its 2009 annual report lists its fiscal year state general fund contribution at $8,794,682, or almost 60 percent of its funding, its 2008-09 comprehensive annual financial report gives state appropriations of $11,109,724. This may be due to the fact that other aspects of it are provided in-kind from other state institutions such as universities. The radio portion is even more obscure. Unlike LETA, there is no state agency responsible for them but, for example, state funds pass through other agencies such as universities that house a station, or LETA may grant stations money so even a ballpark figure is not readily available.
To LETA, the Friends of LPB, the separate organization through which donations flow, gave a little over $2 million in FY 2009 while the CPB gave in the neighborhood of $1.6 million. The Foundation for Excellence in Louisiana Public Broadcasting, established as a place for endowments and the like to settle, by the CAFR received an additional sum of about $867,000 from the Friends that could be used for operations but whether that is included under the other total is not made clear, as it did not show up in the annual report unlike past years. Underwriting was only about $175,000. Five years ago, by the annual report the Friends gave about $1.2 million, the Foundation gave nearly a half million dollars, and underwriting produced almost as much, with the CPB contribution approaching $1.4 million.
Under the Gov. Bobby Jindal Administration the general fund contribution to LETA has dropped 29 percent to $6,779,752 (a little more than in 2004) and self-generated funds, derived from activities such as leasing excess bandwidth, have doubled to over $2 million (four times greater than in 2004). Overall, it has led to a slight decline in revenues, none of its 83 positions (78 classified civil service) cut (with an average salary of around $56,000 a year) and it sits on a couple of million more in net assets although the Foundations has around $22 million in net assets.
As at the federal level, the question is whether Louisiana taxpayers should be asked to continue subsidizing state television and radio. Notably, the large majority of programming for both is national provided by CPB. On the radio side, the little, typically local that is original also tends to be very inexpensive. Therefore, why should the state have much involvement with this? In fact, some stations get along with little state involvement, such as WRKF in Baton Rouge. Given the way funding flows to these stations, decisions about whether some kind of state contribution enters the picture ought to be made at the agency level that current provides such assistance
There’s somewhat more original content on the television side but none of it is watched much. Recently, PBS began subscribing to Nielsen ratings and at the national level found a rating of a little over 1 in prime time (about one percent of all people with televisions in a household were viewing) with its best performing shows in a demographic group being for children age 2-5 about double that. State-specific programming probably draws much smaller audiences, so whether the state contribution makes a very cost-effective expenditure for needs of the state and its people – as opposed to the national programming that would serve national needs and therefore should be funded by that alone – seems unlikely.
Finally, there is the philosophical question about whether the state ought to have its own television network, led by political appointees. There’s never been any history of political interference with LETV – although she is controversial for other reasons, its head Beth Courtney has been on the job for 26 years – but it still may not be the best policy to have stations receiving state money run by political appointees.
While there are not a lot of viewers to justify subsidy by the entire public, there seem enough that these stations could stand on their own. The increase in self generated revenues shows there is room to grow there, the Foundation has a solid base upon which to provide an annual supplement, and there’s no reason to expect that expenditures could not be reduced and underwriting and contributions totals not increased enough so that together LETV’s budget balances without any state supplement.
Thus, the Jindal Administration should begin the process by which the state defunds LETV, and should begin a process to investigate doing so with public radio stations. When LETV was founded nearly 55 years ago, with few VHF and UHF channels available and not even entirely across the state, it might have made sense to have the state subsidize programming. But in today’s era of hundreds of channels readily available plus Internet streaming, narrowcasting for specific audiences is much cheaper and the public can find elsewhere most of the kinds of programming on public television. If the remaining, state-specific material is that good, it will find an audience that can sustain it even if not broadcasted without state involvement. Perhaps in five years monies that today go to LETV in their entirety will find their way to more important, cost-effective priorities of which the state has many.
Posted by Jeff Sadow at 08:45