Fresh from its near-death experience in this year’s congressional budget hearings and after yet another two interminable weeks of begging for dollars from its listeners and viewers, America’s taxpayer-financed public broadcasting system (PBS) has announced plans to launch a new television channel dedicated to programming available only to our British cousins. (See Paul Sonne, “PBS Launches Channel in the U.K.”, Wall Street Journal, November 1, 2011, p. B4.)

That channel will, among other things, supply Brits with opportunities to watch “PBS News Hour”, “Frontline”, “Nova”, Ken Burns’s documentaries and other programming familiar to American audiences.

But Brits will have to pay for that privilege – twice. PBS UK will be available only on that nation’s two pay-to-view TV platforms, Sky Broadcasting Group and Virgin Media Inc. Those channels also will air commercial advertising messages.

“Viewers [and listeners] like you” who, in response to pleas by national and local PBS affiliates were guilt-ridden by the thought that “Car Talk”, “Prairie Home Companion”, “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” or “News Hour” would be taken off-air if you didn’t pony up immediately to your “public” television or radio station, should ask for your money back.

PBS UK expects only to break even on your “investment” in the quasi-private Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which sends hundreds of millions in general tax revenues to local PBS affiliates every year.

Enough is enough! If PBS’s new foreign venture can survive on commercial advertising and user fees from British viewers, why can’t PBS US do the same?

I, for one, would much rather hear or see ads on America’s “public” stations than be exposed to self-serving pleas twice a year for another personal check. After all, you and I already have paid at the office. We help finance PBS in the form of the tax dollars we are forced to contribute to “Frontline” and other programs in which many of us have no interest in supporting.

Television and radio programming is diverse because it is sponsored by advertisers or paid for by willing subscribers. If PBS cannot survive on its own rather than depending on tax subsidies, it ought to be forced off the taxpayers’ budget by being allowed to fail, as should the U.S. Postal Service and other money-losing state-owned enterprises.

William F. Shughart II is Research Fellow and Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, the J. Fish Smith Professor in Public Choice at Utah State University, past President of the Southern Economic Association, and editor of the Independent book, Taxing Choice: The Predatory Politics of Fiscal Discrimination.
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