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Pols ponder coin boost

WASHINGTON — For the first time since 1995, Congress is not trying to figure out a way to turn out the lights on public broadcasting.

After cutting or freezing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s annual subsidy for the past three years, Congress is considering an actual increase in the subsidy, which is currently set at $250 million.

The House, which has been a hotbed of anti-Big Bird rhetoric, has actually proposed hiking the public broadcaster’s outlay to $300 million. That is even more than the Senate, which wants to set aside $275 million for public broadcasting in 2000. “We have certainly come a long way since 1995,” said CPB spokeswoman Jeannie Bunton.

Bunton and other public broadcasters attribute the change of heart in Congress to an outcry from American viewers who did not want to see the noncommercial stations go dark. “The American people stepped up to the plate, cleared their throats and said, ‘This is something we want,’ ” Bunton said.

While the Republican-controlled Congress has backed down from its threat to “zero-out” the federal subsidy for public broadcasters; the past three years have forced pubcasters to begin developing strategies to become self-sufficient. The government aid only adds to up to about 15% of the average station’s revenue, but nervous pubcasters know it cannot be replaced just by extending broadcast fund drives.

Pubcasters are trying to beef up the ability to solicit corporate support for their programming. Four of the top PBS stations, WETA (Washington, D.C.), WNET (New York), KCET (L.A.) and WGBH (Boston), have banded together to jointly solicit national corporate sponsorships for their programming. Two radio stations in Seattle that had trouble raising funds on their own banded together in a similar effort and raised $230,000 in corporate sponsorships during their first year. Individually, the stations were too small to attract sponsors, but together they ranked among the top five stations in the market.

The CPB, which distributes the federal subsidy to radio and television public broadcasters, has also set up a grant program to fund experiments in station cooperation to raise revenues and cut costs.

Not willing to leave any stone unturned, pubcasters recently asked the Federal Communications Commission for permission to lease some of the digital TV spectrum they will soon receive for other uses. While PBS is committed to digital TV, including the transmission of a full high-definition signal, it wants to keep its options open in markets where leasing spectrum could be profitable.

By nature, public broadcasters are resistant to the obvious answer for boosting revenue – which is to sell commercials. “We really do believe that part of our distinction is that we are noncommercial and we need to preserve that,” said Kathy Quattrone, PBS chief programming executive.

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