NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Public Television Has Fewer Donors, But Bigger Bucks

May 16, 2001

While Public Broadcasting Service stations increased their revenues from fundraising in the 1990s, their donor base shrank. PBS stations have total revenues approaching $2 billion annually, but analysts are concerned they may be unable to keep it up if the number of givers doesn't grow.

Gifts from individuals still account for nearly one-quarter of stations' income, a bigger share than is covered by the federal government.

  • Among the 347 Public Broadcasting Service stations, the total number of contributors hit a record high of five million in 1993, but slipped 7.5 percent by 1999.
  • During that period, total contributions to stations grew, roughly 5 percent, after accounting for inflation, to nearly $360 million.
  • Thus, the average gift size rose -- to just over $77 in 1999.

The drop in donors is due partly to a loss of viewers to cable television, industry analysts say. But they place much of the blame on public television itself. Across the country, public-television stations have pursued bigger and bigger one-time donations through on-air appeals and expensive thank-you gifts, spending less time attracting and cultivating their bread-and-butter audience -- viewers who perennially pay a membership fee, usually about $40.

Public radio stations, on the other hand, saw the total number of contributors nearly double to 2.3 million from 1989 to 1999. Public radio has faced far less competition from commercial stations than its television counterpart, say analysts, and has even benefited from the declining number of stations offering classical music, which is often a staple of public radio.

Source: Debra E. Blum, "Warning Signals at PBS," Chronicle of Philanthropy, May 17, 2001.

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