Tuesday, October 13, 2009


This is not trick question and it is being increasingly asked as public broadcasters grow larger, offer multiple channels, move into cross-media operations, and increasingly commercialize their operations.

The Federal Communications Commission will have to consider that question shortly when it considers the effort of WGBH Education Foundation—operator of WGBH-TV, the highly successful Boston-based public service broadcaster—to purchase the commercial radio station WCRB-FM.

WGBH is the top ranked member of the Public Broadcasting Service in the New England and produces about one third of PBS’ programming. It operates a second Boston television station, WGBX-TV, and WGBY in Springfield, Massachusetts. In addition it operates FM radio stations WGBH (Boston), WCAI (Woods Hole), WZAI (Brewster), and WNAN (Nantucket) and is a member of National Public Radio and Public Radio International. It operates two commercial subsidiaries involved in music rights and motion picture production.

This month it announced it was planning to purchase WCRB-FM, a classical music station that serves the Boston area. The purchase would allow it to alter its WGBH-FM format to compete more directly with WBUR-FM, the leading public radio station in Boston that is operated by Boston University.

WGBH Educational Foundation is an enterprise with $580 million in assets and revenues of $280 million annually. It has more than 600 employees who are paid more than $50,000 annually and has 5 paid more than $225,000. Its president and CEO is paid about $340,000 and 2 vice presidents about $250,000 annually. This is not a small, poor charitable enterprise.

Were WGBH a commercial broadcaster, those who hate big media would be howling in protest, arguing that it puts far too much control of the airwave in the hands of one organization and that the concentration will create market power that harms competition. But they are strangely silent.

However, in deciding whether to permit the purchase, the FCC will have to consider whether the expansion of the public broadcaster harms competitors and plurality and diversity.

Similar questions are being asked elsewhere as well. Across the pond, the British Broadcasting Corp. has recently been the target of a good deal of criticism because of its increasingly commercialized operations and because its expansion of public service operations in TV, Radio, and Internet at the local, national, and international level are seen as affecting commercial firms and competition.

The BBC is one of the largest broadcasting companies in the world, operating on revenues of £4.7 billon ($7.4 billion) and it has assets of £1.5 billion ($2.4 billion).

Many commercial broadcasters and publishers in the U.K. have criticized the growth of the BBC operations and the debate became especially heated recently when James Murdoch, the News Corp. head in Europe and Asia, made a public speech charging the BBC was engaging in a “land grab” and that its ambitions were “chilling.”

“The expansion of state-sponsored journalism is a threat to the plurality and independence of news provision, which are so important for our democracy," Murdoch told the Edinburgh International Television Festival. Whether you agree with him or not, you have to give him credit for co-opting the language of critics of big commercial media.

News Corp. and the other commercial firms competing with the BBC obviously have self interests at heart, and some commercial firms have certainly behaved in ways that harmed public interests in the past, but their arguments should not be casually dismissed.

If competition among commercial firms, between commercial and non-commercial firms, and among non-commercial firms is good for pluralism and diversity, cannot concentration and reductions in sources of news and entertainment due to acts of large not-for-profit firms also harm competition, pluralism and diversity?