Public Television Subsidies

Testimony from the Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives to the Pennsylvania House State Government Committee
April 28, 2008

We would like to thank the members of the House State Government Committee for inviting us to submit testimony on the important issue of taxpayer-subsidized public television. The Commonwealth Foundation is an independent, non-profit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg.  

Although governments properly provide various so-called “public goods”—such as law enforcement, courts, and fire protection—the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania provides numerous “private goods.” These are programs and services that are found in the “yellow pages” of the phone book; they compete with, and often crowd out private providers.  These are areas that state government should not be engaged in at all and are properly left to the private sector.

The media, including television, is a “private good.” Public television often provides quality programming to viewers, including such programs as Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street.  But quality programs like these would continue to thrive without government support; in fact, DVDs of 30-year old episodes of these programs are currently sold in stores and websites like  Therefore, given the fact that the private sector is willing to provide television programming, Gov. Rendell’s proposal to cut all state public television subsidies is good public policy.

It is not surprise that public television stations are currently engaged in a public relations effort to preserve their taxpayer subsidies.  Indeed, one public television station is asking its viewers to contact legislators and express support for continued taxpayer funding—essentially using taxpayer money to lobby for more taxpayer money.   But if these stations really do provide a service of value to viewers, they should appeal to their viewers, listeners, private foundations, and other supporters to make up for the loss in taxpayer subsidies. To paraphrase the late economist Milton Friedman, private philanthropy supports so many charities and civic entities, why would we think it could not support public television stations, if it such a valuable contribution to the media?

Some may argue that information is a “public good,” and governments should insure citizens have the ability to access news or information.  Yet, an estimated 90 percent of all households subscribe to cable or satellite television, and the move to digital television has increased the amount of programming available for free, even in the most rural areas.  In an era with over 500 television channels to choose from, a handful of government-sponsored stations offers little additional value at the taxpayers’ expense.

It is clear that even if current public television stations were to shut down, Pennsylvanians would continue to have an abundance of options for getting information or entertainment.  Of course, eliminating state taxpayer subsidies for public television will not, on its own, force stations to close—state subsidies comprise only 3 to 13 percent of the revenue for Pennsylvania’s public television stations.  But it will force them to cater more to the desires of its customers rather than lobbying government.

Another benefit of ending taxpayer subsidies for the media is eliminating the potential for government’s undue influence on public affairs programming.  Television that informs Pennsylvanians about their government should be fiercely independent.  As Cato Institute David Boaz stated in testimony on the subject before a U.S. Committee on Appropriations hearing, “If anything should be kept separate from government and politics, it’s the news and public affairs programming that informs Americans about government and its policies.  When government brings us the news—with all the inevitable bias and spin—the government is putting its thumb on the scales of democracy.”

Last year the state allocated approximately $12 million for Public Television Networks. With the state facing a revenue shortfall of $2.3 billion and a strained budget for next year, it is time to eliminate non-core government functions.  Raising taxes or taking money from core government functions would be fiscally and morally irresponsible.

Whether or not public television produces quality programming is irrelevant; the debate is whether or not they should be supported by tax dollars.  Many Pennsylvanians believe the Commonwealth Foundation is a worthwhile charity that delivers quality information—yet we do not advocate compelling all taxpayers to support our organization with their tax dollars (nor would we accept it).  We earn our support by providing quality products that people are willing to voluntarily support.  We believe public television can do the same and commend Gov. Rendell for proposing the elimination of this non-core government function.

Thank you.