Public Broadcasting Needs Three More Years


The Leadership is about to vote to end Government funding for Public Broadcasting. As it is currently proposed, it’s an all or nothing deal. My social network of professional Washington watchers says it’s a coin toss. I guess we’ll know soon enough.

Rather than make this a conversation about content or political points of view, let’s look at the state of global one-to-many communication and think about how technology might serve Public Broadcasting.

I have listened (and been drawn into) many cocktail conversations debating whether or not Public Broadcasting should be an Internet-only service. It’s a favorite subject of people who have a specific political point of view. Up till very recently, this argument was pointless and moot. Today, it needs to be discussed – but in a slightly different way.

Public Broadcasting needs three more years of government funding. Within three years, Interned-connected television sets will reach a critical mass in households that make up (demographically speaking) the vast majority of the Public Broadcasting audience. Creating a functional “best available screen” Public Broadcasting experience will take about the same three years. It will also take about three years for all of the PBS “lifers” to be replaced with younger, smarter, more ambitious, more technically open-minded employees. It will also take about three years to create a new business model that will allow non-profit and not-for-profit content distribution companies to thrive in the 21st century.

Three more years of funding for Public Broadcasting is a rounding error to the Federal Budget, but it is an extension that will mean the difference between life and death for this wonderful 20th century media experiment.

Would an online, broadband, app-centric, wireless, wired, fixed wireless, over-the-top, IPTV, Internet-Television, 4G, WiMax, Digital Tier ATSC, MSO Public Channel, LPTV, Web, Blog, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Social Media-ized version of Public Broadcasting work? If it can’t – then the content and the concept is not worthy of survival.

But here’s the thing – this can’t happen overnight! You could argue that Public Broadcasting should have seen this coming and should have been getting ready to enter a new world of profitable online content distribution – but they didn’t. They (like every other broadcaster) have stuck to the “big money” model and let every other form of distribution be a “nice to have.” If there is a reason for Public Broadcasting to exist – then we need to give it three years to solve a 21st century problem with a 21st century solution.

Why three years? It’s an arbitrary number, but – if you calculate the rate of consumer adoption of hardware, the speed with which 4G wireless networks are being deployed, the power of the new consumer electronics devices (from TVs to Handhelds) and the new consumer media consumption paradigm: People are taking their TVs with them – three years sounds about right.

Thirty-six months from now there will be over 50 million Internet-connected TVs in the United States alone. We will have a robust 4G network. Anyone who wants a tablet computer (iPad, Xoom, Galaxy Tab, etc.) will have one. And, most importantly, there will only be two kinds of people and two kinds of devices on earth: Connected and Not Connected.

In a world where everyone Public Broadcasting needs to reach is connected – Public Broadcasting should be able to thrive without government funding. The content will find an audience and … a business model always follows an audience.

Should the new face of Public Broadcasting be broadcast TV-centric? Probably not. A highly educated, highly mobile audience no longer watches appointment television. They don’t have to. Since Public Broadcasting offers almost no emergent content (except for news), there is no reason to rely so heavily on linear programming. Even current cable PPV models would be suitable, if the content can find an audience.

Lastly, over a three-year period, Public Broadcasting will be able to lean on potential sponsors for underwriting. And that’s probably what it will do. I don’t expect Public Broadcasting to wake up and join the 21st century. I do expect that if we were to extend Public Broadcasting’s funding for three years, it would use that time to find a way to pay for itself.

While I agree that the $400ish million dollars of taxpayer money might be put to better use right now, Washington has a proven track record of wasting money on all kinds of less important stuff. And, while I also agree that the Public Broadcasting is badly broken and severely out-of-date, I believe that it is important enough to be given a fighting chance. Whether you agree with me or not, please contact your elected officials and let them know how you feel. This is “our” Public Broadcasting system and we should make sure that the Leadership hears what we have to say. Shelly Palmer




Shelly Palmer

Shelly Palmer is Managing Director, Digital Media Group at Landmark Ventures/ShellyPalmer a technology focused Investment Banking & Advisory practice specializing in M&A, Financings, Strategic Partnerships and Innovation Access. He is Fox 5 New York's On-air Tech Expert and well known for his work on Fox Television's Shelly Palmer Digital Living as well as his daily radio report on United Stations Radio Networks. For more information, visit


  1. Shelly, I work for public broadcasting and agree with much of what you say: Public broadcasting remains stuck in the 20th century and can’t seem to shake its dying one-to-many model. But when you refer to “a world where everyone Public Broadcasting needs to reach is connected,” you miss a critical point. In three years (or whatever number we pick) many people will remain disconnected. Public broadcasting was created to serve everyone, including those underserved or ignored by commercial media. I’ve worked in East St. Louis where I can assure you in three years many people will want tablets but won’t have them, and they probably won’t have affordable broadband either. It would be great if we could abandon the incredibly expensive broadcasting infrastructure, and focus our efforts on creating great content for on-demand, accessible anywhere consumers. But we’d be leaving millions of people out of this brilliant media future.

    Most importantly, local public broadcasting stations continue to serve local communities with local news and educational programs and services. Commercial media has basically abandoned these things, because they are not financially profitable. To say public broadcasting should adopt a commercial model is to say we don’t need these things, and it’s OK to have a media system that doesn’t serve everyone. That’s really what the argument over federal funding for the CPB is all about.

    • kate says:

      I agree with you the public broadcasting is very important to everyone. Many underserved area would be disconnected and can be disaster.
      I always believe knowledge is makes better world and not to be ignorant.
      Because ignorant is most dangerous to our lives in 21 century.

  2. Tim Halle says:

    While I agree with you that there are many things broken about Public Television, switching it to a broadband only service is not a good idea. Public Broadcasting has many (and if you ask me, generally poorly defined) missions, but arguably the most important is providing access to educational materials to PBS calls the “traditionally underserved” population. We can argue about what “traditionally underserved” means, but certainly this includes poor folks who are also the last bastion of terrestrial television viewers and unlikely to have internet access. PBS going to an internet only broadband distribution model would remove service from these people who need it most.

  3. Tom Klammer says:

    CPB funding should be raised by a factor of 4 or 5 or more, and overall subsidization of journalism increased by a factor of 20 or 30, not cut.

    What is wrong with public broadcasting now is that they are too dependent on corporate underwriters and too fearful of offending the hard right.

    Yes, there should be a rigorous examination of how to deal with changing technology, but broadcast radio and television are still major inputs for many people- it is not time to abandon them, especially broadcast radio, to Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh. Yes, by all means, we must not be blind to future changes, but broadcast radio is still a very effective tool, albeit mostly ably used by the right, and I really don’t believe it will become irrelevant any time soon even with smartphones and pads and internet TV become more ubiquitous.

    With the recent Obama/Genachowski betrayal of campaign promises to vigorously defend and maintain an open internet and, if I understand it right, this threat being particularly ominous for newer wireless technologies down the road, the idea of right now embracing an idea of internet only public broadcasting seems especially foolish.

    What is
    “a new world of **profitable** (my emphasis) online content distribution”
    and what is being suggested for public broadcasting by that phrase? Journalism is NOT profitable. The newspaper advertising model of paying for it is dead, and we haven’t yet come up with a new model (or more accurately, we haven’t yet re-embraced the founding fathers’ insight of the necessity for significant government subsidy to ensure democracy by informing the public).

    Profitable media is not journalism. Whether that phrase suggests individual readers/viewers/listeners paying for content, (and those who cannot pay doing without) or whether profitable means paid for by corporate sleaze, profitable does not equate to “public” broadcasting.

    “In a world where everyone Public Broadcasting needs to reach is connected”

    What is the basis of that conclusion as to who PB needs to reach after saying there are two kinds of people – “connected and unconnected.”

    “a business model always follows an audience.”

    Yes, that is exactly the problem.

  4. Ann Onamus says:

    Time for just one point here. What is the current and forecast cost per month for access to a 4G network via a tablet PC with unlimited access? I’m guessing it’s north of $100 per month, but let’s say $1200 a year. Poverty level now for family of 4 is about $20K. Should people be expected to spend more than 5% of their income to gain access to entertainment and educational content? For me that would work out to about $7,500/year. I wouldn’t pay that in a million years and I wouldn’t ask anyone else to either. PBS serves the underserved first and foremost and no for-profit model will ever find a non-subsidized reason to do that.

  5. Mike Peterson says:

    My take on the issue is one from the perspective of a field engineer that connects with many terrestrial viewers.
    I take care of the translator network for a PBS station. Many of the viewers I speak with have no other option than using an antenna. They are not in a position to pay the monthly fee for a cable or satellite service. Right now with our economy in a slump I have seen many viewers abandon their paid for service and install an antenna. We serve a large population of older persons on limited income and many of them say the only TV they watch is PBS. I don’t think these viewers or anyone that can’t afford TV have any other options. In addition to the great experience
    of public television as a Broadcaster we put EAS announcements on the air. These provide an element of personal safety to the public. Another thing, NTIA has enabled the translator districts who have little money the ability to upgrade to digital. This has allowed the rural areas to catch up with technology and bring HD with sub-channels to the hinterlands. So between PBS and Translator groups there are many jobs supported and created. Thats my take.

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