Public broadcasting includes radio, television and other electronic media outlets that receive some or all of their funding from the public. Public broadcasters may receive their funding from individuals through voluntary donations, a specific tax such as a television license fee, or as direct funding by the state.
The extent to which public broadcasters can be considered "non-commercial" varies from country to country. In the United States, most public radio and television stations are licensed as non-commercial broadcasters, yet many stations air underwriting spots (resembling advertisements on commercial broadcasting but with some content limitations) in exchange for corporate contributions. In some other countries, public broadcasters are permitted to air commercials.
Public broadcasting may be nationally and/or locally operated, depending on the country and the station. In some countries, public broadcasting is dominated by a single organization (such as the BBC in the UK) and its radio and television services broadcast throughout the country. However, some countries have multiple public broadcasting organizations operating regionally (such as in Germany) or in different languages. In the United States, public broadcasting stations are always locally licensed, but range from stations that mostly broadcast programming from national networks (such as the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR)) to stations that broadcast only locally produced content.
Historically, in many countries (with the notable exception of the US), public broadcasting was once the only form or the dominant form of broadcasting. However, commercial broadcasting now also exists in most of these countries; the number of countries with only public broadcasting has declined substantially during the latter part of the 20th century. In some countries, commercial broadcasting and the emergence of a wider variety of broadcast media have created competition that makes it more difficult for public broadcasters to retain their audiences and survive. From 1961 to 1966 alone, the educational television audience for instructional programs doubled to 6.3 million.
Public broadcasting contributes to the education of their audience through exposure to the cultural or performing arts. This type of programming helps define alternative programming. Cultural and performing arts programs consist of diverse documentaries and performances. Although audiences are relatively small compared to commercial broadcasters, these types of programs have gained financial support from nonprofit organizations and philosophical minorities seeking to obtain exposure through the media. These independent productions and films introduce various cultures, religions, and ethical positions around the world.