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Public broadcasting = Government broadcasting

On Tuesday, my colleague Tom Steward wrote about how Twin Cities Public Television (TPT), under pressure from one of Gov. Walz’ aides, deleted footage of an event which went badly for the First Lady.

Who are the ‘public’?

What does the ‘public’ in Twin Cities Public Television mean? NBC and CBS are both public in the sense that members of the public, such as you and I, can watch them, assuming we have a TV, and if we don’t we cant watch TPT either.

Does it refer to the ‘public’ interest, which TPT is supposed to serve? Again, NBC and CBS serve the interest of the section of the public which watches them. And, judging by their relative ratings, the public are, on average, much more interested in the output of NBC and CBS than they are in that of TPT.

Who pays?

There is an old saying back in England: he who pays the piper calls the tune. NBC and CBS are paid by their advertisers, so they have to please them. They do so by drawing big audiences for their adverts. And they do this by putting on shows that (they think) a large portion of the public will like.

In their excellent textbook Modern Principles of Economics, economists Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok write that “Good institutions align self-interest with the social interest”. We see that here. People get programs they enjoy not because NBC and CBS are run by altruists who get a kick out of entertaining people, but because NBC and CBS want to get money from advertisers. In turn, those advertisers don’t hand over money to NBC and CBS because they get a warm fuzzy feeling when kids jump up and down with excitement watching American Ninja Warrior. They do it because bigger audiences for their advertisements will help them sell more of their products. The institutions – TV companies, advertising, advertisers – are aligned with the social – or public – interest.

It is a different set up with TPT. It gets much of its funding from the government. So, just as NBC and CBS have to please their advertisers, TPT has to please government. This is how videos of uncomfortable meetings get deleted.

The government, in turn, gets its money not from businesses which have to produce a good or service the public want to pay for to generate revenue, but from the public on pain of imprisonment. Here the institutions align self-interest very differently. TPT gets its money from the government, which may, in return, get helpful coverage. The government gets its money from the public, which pretty much has no choice in the matter. There is no incentive anywhere here to provide the public with programming they actually enjoy. That is borne out by the relatively low ratings for TPT’s product.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment. 

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