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International affairs > 13. International Broadcasting

The Broadcasting Board of Governors—with a budget of $752 million in fiscal year 2012—has recognized the need to reduce overlap and reallocate limited resources to broadcasts that will have the greatest impact, but the agency could do more to achieve this goal, such as systematically considering overlap of language services in its annual language services review.

Why This Area Is Important

U.S. international broadcasting is intended to communicate directly with audiences in countries with limited journalism alternatives and to inform, engage, and connect people around the world. U.S. international broadcasting has grown considerably in the seven decades since it was first launched, with Congress creating additional broadcasting entities to target new audiences. These entities now broadcast through radio, television, Internet, and mobile technology, reaching an estimated weekly audience of 175 million people. The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) is the federal agency responsible for U.S. international broadcasting. The Board oversees BBG’s broadcast entities—Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Office of Cuba Broadcasting, Radio Free Asia, and Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Inc.

What GAO Found

In January 2013, GAO found that nearly two-thirds of the BBG language services—offices that produce content for particular languages and regions—overlap with a language service offered by another BBG entity by providing programs to the same countries in the same languages. GAO identified 23 instances of overlap, involving 43 of BBG’s 69 language services. For example, in 8 instances involving 16 services, a Voice of America service and a Radio Free Asia service overlapped. Almost all overlapping services also broadcast on the same platform (i.e., radio or television). The figure following shows the extent of overlap among BBG language services as of June 2012.

Overlap of BBG Entities’ Language Services, as of June 2012

Overlap of BBG Entities’ Language Services, as of June 2012

The total cost associated with maintaining the 43 overlapping language services is about $149 million, or nearly 20 percent of BBG’s total appropriations for fiscal year 2011.[1] This amount represents the sum of the total cost for all overlapping language services as reported in BBG’s Annual Language Service Review Briefing Book from fiscal year 2011. The amount of money that could be saved by reducing or eliminating overlapping language services would depend on a variety of factors, including which services were reduced or eliminated, which transmission assets or broadcast hours were reduced or transferred, and whether staff and other resources from an eliminated service were transferred to the remaining services.

According to BBG officials, language services that broadcast in the same country and language are sometimes distinguished by broadcast hours or purpose and content.

  • Broadcast hours. BBG officials told us that overlapping language services generally coordinate with one another to broadcast at different hours of the day.

  • Purpose and content. BBG officials said that although Voice of America and the other BBG broadcasters have different purposes, flexibility in their governing laws allows some overlapping content. Officials noted that according to the law, Voice of America must represent the United States, presenting and explaining the country’s policies in addition to providing accurate news, while the other BBG broadcasters generally act as regional or local news providers. However, BBG’s interpretation of the entities’ mandates and missions allows for some flexibility related to programming content, which could lead to content overlap.

The International Broadcasting Act, as amended, directs BBG to consider issues related to overlap, such as duplication, among some language services. For example, the law requires that grant agreements to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty shall include a provision stating that duplication of language services and technical operations between RFE/RL and VOA should be reduced to the extent appropriate, as determined by BBG’s Board of Governors.[2]

BBG’s annual language service review—the agency’s primary method of prioritizing broadcast languages and planning resource allocations—does not systematically consider the cost and impact of language service overlap. BBG’s language service review is intended to help the agency make decisions on allocating resources to language services by considering factors such as foreign policy priorities and the domestic media environment in countries that receive BBG broadcasts. The resulting Annual Language Service Review Briefing Book provides detailed data for all language services, but does not discuss the cost or impact associated with overlap. BBG officials stated that the methodology for the language service review does not include an assessment of the cost and impact of overlapping language services because officials are already aware of overlap among their language services and because the law has not required BBG to include assessments of overlap as part of its annual language service review. However, by not systematically considering overlap, the agency risks missing opportunities to reduce overlap as appropriate, strengthen impact, and improve coordination among its entities.

[1]The cost for each language service includes employee salaries and benefits, and general operating expenses. This amount exceeds the potential savings from eliminating or reducing overlap, given that it includes all services that overlap in a particular country and language and that some staff and other resources from eliminated language services would likely be transferred to remaining services.

[2]BBG is managed by a nine-member part-time bipartisan Board of Governors.

Actions Needed

In January 2013, GAO recommended that BBG take the following action:

  • ensure that BBG’s annual language service review includes systematic consideration of the cost and impact of internal overlap among BBG entities’ language services.

GAO was able to estimate the total cost for overlapping language services but was not able to determine the potential savings associated with reducing overlap; the amount of money that could be saved by reducing or eliminating overlapping language services would depend on a variety of factors, including whether staff and other resources from an eliminated service were transferred to the remaining services.

How GAO Conducted Its Work

The information contained in this analysis is based on findings from the product in the related GAO product section. GAO reviewed laws, reports, and other documents related to U.S. international broadcasting. GAO also reviewed and analyzed information on the missions of the five BBG entities—Voice of America, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Inc., Radio Free Asia, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty—and on their broadcast coverage, by country, language, and platform. We interviewed officials from BBG, and each of the five BBG entities. Table 10 in appendix IV lists the programs GAO identified that might have similar or overlapping objectives, provide similar services, or be fragmented across government missions. Overlap and fragmentation might not necessarily lead to actual duplication, and some degree of overlap and duplication may be justified.

Agency Comments & GAO Contact

In commenting on the January 2013 report on which this analysis is based, BBG agreed with our recommendations and said that it had begun the planning necessary to include a more in-depth and systematic review of overlapping language services in its annual language service review. BBG noted that its spending in fiscal year 2011 to maintain language services broadcasting in the same countries and languages—$149 million—represented the baseline budget for the 43 overlapping language services we identified but not the amount that could be saved if overlapping services were eliminated. For example, BBG stated that some overlap may be necessary and beneficial and that, in some cases, the overlap resulted from statutory mandates.

GAO provided a draft of this report section to BBG for review and comment. In an e-mail received on February 22, 2013, the BBG Congressional Coordinator stated that the BBG is making some progress toward addressing GAO's January 2013 recommendation regarding the annual language service review process. Specifically, BBG has begun work on an online information portal that will integrate information on research, strategy, development, budget, and performance by country, and will allow for more in-depth analysis of overlap. BBG hopes to use this tool for the 2013 Language Service Review.

For additional information about this area, contact Timothy J. DiNapoli at (202) 512-3665, or

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