Beltway Bumps Rattle Pubcasting

Even before the first gavel was heard in the 104th Congress last week, public television’s scariest nightmares came to life. Already threatening to zap all federal funding, two of Washington’s most powerful legislators amplified those proposals and added some more during the week before they took office.

As a result, public TV officials are preparing for the worst, bracing for an attack that they say could ultimately kill the system.

The Corp. for Public Broadcasting, which has suddenly become one of the country’s top headline-grabbers, is at the center of the storm. Its $285 million congressional outlay for fiscal ’95 is on the brink of elimination, according to the agendas of new Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.), who will chair the Senate Commerce Committee.

On the eve of the new Congress, both reiterated their desire to comb CPB out of Congress’ hair, citing their goal to turn it into a private, nonsubsidized operation.

“Things are moving so rapidly that our big concern is that we may not get a chance to really inform Congress of what public TV is and how it works,” says Henry Cauthen, CPB chairman and president of the South Carolina Educational TV Network. “We just might get caught up in early budget cuts. Our great concern is that we have an opportunity to have our story heard.”

So far, the story hasn’t been a pretty one. Pressler, for example, exchanged ripostes on the Jan. 3 edition of ABC’s “Nightline” with Public Broadcasting Service president and CEO Ervin Duggan in a nasty debate about CPB and the industry.

Afterward, opinions were sharply divided as to whether Pressler scored higher with his key point (the wasteful CPB is gobbling taxpayer money) or whether Duggan won out with his (CPB and its constituents are frugal and a vital component of American culture). Duggan found a somewhat more receptive audience the next day dealing with members of the TV Critics Assn., who are assembled in Pasadena, Ca. While GOP leaders have frequently criticized PBS for a liberal bias and for airing prurient programs, the critics blasted the service in July for refusing to fund a sequel to “Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City” – charging PBS with caving in to right-wing pressure groups.

The former FCC commissioner spoke in dramatic terms, saying efforts to force PBS into the commercial realm would sound its death knell. “Public television cannot serve the gods of education, culture and citizenship and also serve the god of commerce at the same time,” he insisted.

The notion of federal money for public broadcasting has come under fire in just about every session of Congress, and with nearly every presidential administration since the mid ’50s. Is the industry responding differently this time?

‘Local activity’

“First, this is not just a CPB or PBS or NPR (National Public Radio) issue,” says Cauthen. “We’re talking about 345 public TV stations and 600 radio stations. It’s a local activity, and that’s something Congress may not be aware of.”

Though time has been short, Cauthen and the Organization of State Broadcasting Executives are talking up their next meeting as a chance to gather local public broadcasting execs and get a feeling for how they want to defend themselves. The organization’s periodic conferences are normally attended by about 25 programmers, but attendance at the Jan. 9-10 get-together in Washington is expected to top 100.

“We want them to see how much their viewers and listeners really value public broadcasting,” Cauthen noted, “to see if they think public broadcasting is worth $1.07 per year per American, which is what CPB ends up costing.”

Though public broadcasters are masters at drumming up support from their audiences, they often acknowledge their basic weakness in seeking help from the government.

“One thing this institution is not good at is lobbying, especially for ourselves,” says William F. Baker, president of WNET in New York. “The strongest case we can make comes from our supporters and friends.”

Baker acknowledged that there are no plans for any on-air drives at WNET, the country’s largest public TV station, in response to funding pressure from Congress. “Our most effective response would come from a grassroots uprising to support us.”

In talking to other execs, Cauthen says some of them “felt this was something they shouldn’t be doing, that they just shouldn’t have to lobby. But now I think they’re realizing that they have to make a case.” CPB, by law, is not allowed to take part in lobbying activities.

The “Nightline” debate was preceded by a C-Span interview with Gingrich, who stated that he’ll make a “big effort” to wipe out Congress’ support of CPB. He added, “These are just a bunch of rich, upper-class people who want their toy to play with.”

75&cents; of each dollar

On “Nightline,” Pressler’s claims included repeated accusations that CPB uses 75&cents; from every dollar for its own overhead. Among other things, he also said that CPB has been refusing to answer Congressional inquiries about how funding is dispersed.

CPB researchers have spent the days since then scrambling to compile detailed responses to Pressler’s charges, which they plan to use as educational background material in response to other opponents. “We’re working at Mach Four with our hair on fire,” says one staffer.

On the air, Duggan stated, “Nothing is more frugal than public television. Eighty-six percent of our money comes from private and other sources.” CPB press secretary Jeannie Bunton added that Pressler’s figures are “absolutely incorrect. By law, CPB is not allowed to spend more than 4.6% of its Congressional funding on overhead.”

PBS officials also have rejected Gingrich’s charges of elitism, citing research showing that most Americans approve of PBS and that a majority of its viewers live in households where annual income is below $40,000.

“We’re an easy target, and we’re perceived as such,” said Cauthen. “CPB is looked at as a Washington bureaucracy. But 90% of CPB funding goes to stations, through community-service grants, or to programming.”

“No problem that has been talked about justifies a nuclear strike that would annihilate this institution,” Duggan added. PBS will get less than 15% of its $161.1 million budget from CPB this year, but many of its 346 member stations get big chunks of funding from CPB, and if those funds vanish, so, the argument goes, will programming, which is PBS’s lifeblood.

Cauthen, who was appointed CPB board chair almost six years ago by President Bush, recently was reconfirmed for the post by President Clinton. “I come from a nonpartisan background in that I was appointed by presidents from both parties,” he said. “But I’m not nonpartisan on this issue.”

Brian Lowry contributed to this report.

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