Jerry Wareham, president/general manager of WVIZ, Cleveland’s 30-year-old public TV station, is worried.
So is William F. Baker, president of public television giant WNET in New York, who sits atop a $100 million budget and presides over a mini-empire of national programming.
Both believe that federal support for public broadcasting could become an endangered species in the incoming Republican-controlled Congress.
“It would come very close to putting our lights out,” said Baker, referring to the strong possibility of a congressional wipeout of funding for the Corp. for Public Broadcasting. “We would have an infrastructure, but no ability to make programming.
“This is an absolutely serious threat, and it’s most tragic that it comes at a time when research says we’re needed more than ever,” Baker said.
Adds Wareham: “We program about half of our 24-hour viewing day to kids under age 6. And we’ve become the No. 1 station in Cleveland among 2-to 5year-olds. But kids 2 to 5 years old don’t have a lot of money to send to a station.”
The fine print in Republican Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America” includes bad news for public TV. Gingrich, the incoming Speaker of the House, has stated-most memorably during a show on the ironically titled National Empowerment Television-that he wants to “zero out” CPB because it has been “eating taxpayers’ money.”
Gingrich and other lawmakers apparently are determined to remove federal funding of non-commercial broadcasting and “privatize” the industry, meaning that they want it to be self-sufficient. Public TV veterans say this kind of talk has been heard many times since the nonprofit broadcasting business took shape in the ’50s-but this time, most agree, it’s a genuine danger. For fiscal ’95, Congress appropriated $285 million to CPB, an increase of more than $30 million from two years ago. About 65% of its budget goes directly to public TV and radio stations, and 25% supports programming costs. More than 350 public TV stations around the country get anywhere from 4% to 40% of their operating budgets from CPB.
Where lawmakers would reassign CPB’s funds if the agency is deleted from Congress’ books is anybody’s guess, though the money certainly won’t stay in the broadcasting business. But regardless of how much or how little public TV’s players rely on Uncle Sam’s support, there’s a unanimous belief that the elimination of CPB would result in a form of “trickle-down economics” that would suck much of the life from non-commercial broadcasting-if it didn’t deliver a death blow.
Case in point: The Public Broadcasting Service, now in its 25th-anniversary year, got less than 15% of its $161.1 million budget this year from CPB.
Yet every person contacted at PBS firmly believes that an end to CPB would mean crippling side effects for each of the system’s 346 member stations. Those stations supply up to 75% of PBS’s budget in the form of fees to acquire programming, which is supplied by member stations and by independent producers.
The complex mating system of public TV essentially comes down to an equation: If a majority of public stations get a big chunk of their budgets from CPB to produce programming, and if CPB is gone, then programming dries up. Financial support from viewers, corporate donors and other sources could easily follow suit.
“I’ve always thought of this as an asset and a strength, and it’s that public TV is a series of local institutions,” said Robert Ottenhoff, executive VP and chief operating officer at PBS.
“Each of them is there because a member of the community wanted them there. But if CPB loses, local institutions lose. CPB is the venture capital, the first money in the door,” Ottenhoff said. “And for the larger stations, it’s a double whammy. WNET operates as a local station, but it also produces a big portion of the national schedule.”
“What we do with our funding is something people don’t understand,” said Wareham, whose WVIZ reaches about 2 million viewers in Ohio. “We’re primarily in the education business.”
His station boasts an annual budget of less than $8 million, approximately a fourth of which is from federal sources, mostly CPB. When he was called for feedback on public TV’s financial crises, he was in the midst of preparing a battle plan for his board of trustees.
WVIZ’s structure typifies the plight faced by hundreds of small and mid-sized public TV outlets. In addition to producing the occasional program that “goes national” (to PBS for distribution in hundreds of markets), WVIZ sends daily programming to local schools, operates a media center of instructional videos and software for teachers and supervises other local outreach projects.
“We do it on an annual budget that’s a bit less than that of an average high school,” says Wareham. “We think it’s all a pretty good investment, and it’s a federal program that works. CPB is the glue that holds the system together.”
“We do programs no one else can do,” says WNET’s Baker, referring to such major noncommercial productions as “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour,” “Great Performances” and “Nature.”
WNET’s programming and educational expenses comprise more than 60% of the station’s operating expenses, a much higher proportion than that of smaller public broadcasters, which spend far more on program acquisitions and local activities.
But if CPB’s seed money is gone, “All stations would get hit hard, in different ways,” Baker adds. “The little money that many stations use to produce national programming, as well as their local operating budgets, would be decimated. The pain would be unbearable for all of us. Institutions would fold or would radically change.”
Like most public TV executives, Baker refuses to regard his station or the industry as witnesses to their own execution, but he and many of his colleagues are painfully short on real solutions. “We’re not planning for any doomsday scenario. Over 180 million people watch public TV once a month-it’s the most-used area for federal spending outside of the federal highway system. But we’re bipartisan and apolitical. It’s a great weakness. We can’t really galvanize people-we’re just not good at it.”
“WNET can survive,” said Nancy Neubauer, staff member at the Assn. of America’s Public Television Stations, a nonprofit advocacy group. “But if 200 other stations can’t pay their bills, then what happens?”
Public TV also is battling a decades-old insistence that much public TV fare is heavily rooted in a liberal, elitist bias. Many sources are convinced that this perception forms the basis of Republican opposition to federal funding for the sector.
The prospect of Gingrich and other legislators working to cross out CPB from Congress’ ledgers has brought a surge of recent stories on the subject by the national media, including CBS News and the New York Times. And to the dismay of public TV, much of the coverage has been less than supportive of the industry. In one article, the Times, a longtime stronghold of encouragement for public broadcasting, said Gingrich’s intentions may be “misconceived,” but it added, “The man has a case.”
“Controversial programs make up an infinitesimal percentage of the number of programming hours that are on out there,” said CPB senior VP Mike Schoenfeld. “We’re trying to make clear to members of Congress and the communities what public broadcasting pro vides. It’s not just a national monolith, or as it’s sometimes called, an ‘ inside the Beltway’ or New York institution. There are a number of people who accuse public TV of having a conservative bias. And it’s a myth that all Republicans are opposed to public broadcasting. We don’t look at this situation as ‘ the Republicans vs. our friends.’”
Similar to NEA
The dilemma, Washington insiders say, is similar to that faced by the National Endowment for the Arts, the embattled agency whose budget has been rapidly shrinking in Congress, based primarily on some provocative projects that resulted from NEA funding. Sources feel certain that the NEA is staring down the barrel of conservative guns in Congress, even more so than CPB is.
“It’s the same battle,” said a former public TV exec. “Every few years it comes up, and all the arguments for and against public TV funding come out of the bag. But we’ve been used to having a Democratic Congress and a Republican president. Now, frankly, we have a weak president and a strong Republican Congress. The industry will just start all over in trying to marshal support.
Red tape troubles
“But this industry has glaring faults and terrible inefficiencies. There’s so much money supporting so many superstructures, money that should be on the screen,” he concludes.
One apparent strength that public broadcasting falls back on is the ability to parlay its federal, corporate and viewer funding into a lot more money. Industry figures show that for every dollar given to CPB, up to $5 in revenue is generated around the business, whether it’s through new programming that revs up viewer contributions or staff upgrades that strengthen a station’s role.
Those kinds of results are what public TV is nervously bringing to the attention of legislators. No one can predict the outcome in Congress, but sources feel sure that the conflict will climax in 1995.