Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Non-Commercial Competition For Fox News

Conservative critics of public broadcasting have long argued that the news content on public radio and public television should be more balanced. Current CPB-head Ken Ferree went one step further in a recent New York Times interview suggesting that public television should do more to attract conservative and Republican viewers.

This is an important progression in the public broadcasting discussion as the focus is no longer solely on content but also on who is in the audience.

Many people find this troubling, fearing that CPB is now engaging in the very activity it was designed to prevent – political interference with programming content. It is a legitimate concern.

It’s my nature, however, to take people’s statements at face value until given a reason to do otherwise. So I’ll believe Ken Ferree when he says, “Believe it or not, we don't discuss politics here.”

But the discussion is about who watches. That leaves us with an interesting question. Is Mr. Ferree suggesting that CPB fund programs targeted at the viewers of Fox News?

Though Mr. Ferree might not realize it, the answer has to be “yes” because new audiences don’t appear out of thin air. They are won from the competition. To be successful, any new programming targeted at conservatives will have to pull audience from programs currently serving conservatives. This might actually fit CPB’s public service mission.

For years, conservatives complained about not having media outlets that appeal to their values. They have them now in Fox, at least on the news side, and in radio talk shows such as Rush Limbaugh and Doctor Laura. But these are outlets are riddled with commercialism and hype. Conservatives don’t have non-commercial media outlets. It is beginning to sound like they want them.

The success of NPR News, News Hour, and Now with Bill Moyers shows that a lot of people want to get their news from organizations free from advertising, hype, and commercial influence. They want to know that the people delivering the news have not been bought. The ratings bear this out. News audiences in public broadcasting have grown significantly despite the proliferation of news choices on TV, cable, radio, satellite, and the Internet.

There’s no reason to believe this pattern won’t hold as the number of commercial, conservative news options grows. More competition means more hype and more commercials. At some point, there will be a sizable number of conservatives looking for a non-commercial alternative to it all.
Since CPB funded non-commercial news alternatives to ABC, CBS, CNN, and NBC, it is well within its mission to fund non-commercial alternatives to Fox and other conservative-leaning media outlets. The increase in appeals for public broadcasting to reach out to conservatives suggests there is a demand for these alternatives. CPB owes it to the public to at least explore the possibilities.


Blogger Aaron Read said...

I'm going to posit there are two flaws with your argument.

First, that audience-attraction is a zero-sum game. There are many, many people out there who don't listen to the radio AT ALL. While generally it is much harder to get these listeners than it is to steal them from your competition, they are out there. And in this case I have a hunch it might be easier to get "virgin" listeners than to steal existing conservative listeners because...

Second, many (perhaps most) of the real adherents to Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, etc etc are not looking for INFORMATION - they want ENTERTAINMENT. PBS & NPR are not in the business of entertainment...generally speaking they fail miserably at entertainment. Even "Car Talk" still gives actual, potentially-useful car advice admist all the self-depreciation and cackling from Tom & Ray. Rush is under no such pretense; he's there to entertain you into feeling good about hating liberals.

A lot of the "liberal vs. conservative" wars *in the media* (I won't comment in real life) are really more "college-educated vs. street-smarts". To go after the "street-smart" crowd NPR/PBS will be FORCED to "dumb down" its content to appeal to a lower common denominator. That might work for many media outlets, but the core audience of NPR/PBS is educated intellectuals who like being talked up to...not being pandered to. It'll drive them away in droves.

10:11 AM  
Blogger RadioSutton said...

Thanks for the comment Aaron. I agree that audience-attraction is not a zero-sum game. But the data suggest it is pretty darn close to that. Overall radio audiences are in decline. Primetime TV usage is not growing. But the larger point here is that any effort to attract more conservative viewers to evening news on PBS will create some competition for Fox -- maybe not for the entire Fox audience but for at least a portion of it. I think you'd be hard pressed to find true conservatives who would think that's a good use of tax dollars.

9:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You say "the core audience of NPR/PBS is educated intellectuals who like being talked up to..." Also "To go after the "street-smarts" crowd NPR/PBS will be FORCED to "dumb down" its content. . ."

Isn't that a bit self congratulatory and elitist? Also "like being talked up to" seems suspiciously similar to "being pandered to." A topic for another discussion perhaps.

However, your assessment may be correct that the NPR core audience likes to think of themselves as "educated intellectuals" who consequently need to be entertained appropriately. Lest we quibble over semantics, I'm drawing on the "agreeable" implied meaning inside "entertain."

Therefore it would appear to be problematic to try to mix programming, some that is attractive to the "college-educated" folk, other that appeals to the "street-smarts" crowd. Or perhaps there is common ground.

Many of my fellow volunteers at our community radio station probably would have set on the left at the French National Assembly of 1789. Curiously we're about equally divided by the college-vs-street statistic.

Likewise our support base probably is broader than just our local "intellectuals." I'd guess this in part is from the appeal of our local non-political non-news programming.

That programming specifically is why I support this station. I have the internet for news and politics. I can read much faster than anyone can talk.

11:59 AM  

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