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The Importance of Public Broadcasting

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The Origins of OPB, KOAC at OSU - Photo Courtesy of Creative Commons

In Portland, it’s channel 10.

In Corvallis, it’s 7.

In Eastern Oregon, it’s 13.

Either way, it’s PBS.

Wherever you’re from, if you had television growing up, then you had access to the Public Broadcasting System. From wholesome children’s shows, to nature and science documentaries, to commercial-free programming, PBS had found the secret to balancing learning and entertainment. It was like the kindly old man of television—not unlike Mr. Rogers, whose show aired on PBS. While PBS hasn’t been directly threatened by the 2016 election—certainly not as much as it was in 2012—a Federal Communications Commission signal spectrum auction has potential effects on the breadth of PBS coverage, particularly in rural areas. As the auction draws to a close, there is still hope that PBS stations throughout the country will emerge without significant damages.

PBS is unlike any other major broadcast TV station–it is managed from the bottom up. It is almost like PBS is a community garden, where everyone pitches in and everyone benefits. Although national programming initiatives do exist, local stations operate with relative autonomy. This also means that they are largely self-funded. In fact, public broadcasting stations in populous areas only rely on federal funds for a small percentage of their budget. Thus, when federal funding for public broadcasting is threatened, it is rural stations that are most vulnerable.

Over 40 percent of PBS viewers are children. For households that can’t afford cable packages, educational programming on PBS is one of the only forms of media that children are exposed to. Considering that long-running programs like “Sesame Street” have measured positive impacts on cognitive development, and that children in households below the poverty line are less likely to have access to books, PBS, in some cases, can fill crucial educational gaps.

The FCC is allowing broadcasting stations to auction off parts of their broadcasting spectrum to wireless companies. For rural PBS stations, this would bring in revenue at the sacrifice of broadcasting service. While stations could still offer their shows over the internet, they would lose viewers who directly view programs on-air, which, in rural areas, comprises a large chunk of viewership.

In Oregon, public broadcasting actually began at Oregon State University. OSU housed the state’s first public radio station in 1923, and later the first public television station in 1957. Everything would later conglomerate into Oregon Public Broadcasting, which is currently headquartered in Portland.

PBS is a wonderful entity. In today’s world of over-commercialized entertainment media, it feels like a dream to watch an un-interrupted show, on-air. It has the benefits of streaming coupled with the anticipation of seeing something live. Its array of colorful cartoons provide helpful educational benefits for children, and its long-time partnership with BBC means that some classic British TV finds its way onto American airwaves. There’s a lot to love.


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