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Public Broadcasting on the Ropes

PBSBoxing Here’s my story from the print version of Variety on the perilous environment that public broadcasting faces over the next few months, as Republicans seek across the board spending cuts and, in some cases, elimination of federal funding altogether for the likes of PBS and NPR:

A 41-year-old video posted to the PBS website has been a morale booster for public television in times of tough budget battles.

In it, Mister Rogers appears before a powerful Senate subcommittee scrutinizing $20 million in federal funding. In explaining his show, he recites lines from a song called “What Do You Do With the Mad that You Feel?”

The testimony is enough to win over the panel’s irritable chairman, Rhode Island Democrat John O. Pastore, who tells Rogers that he got “goosebumps” listening to him and adds, “Looks like you just earned the $20 million.”

Rogers is gone, but the “mad” remains — anger that may drown out any other “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”-like moments in what looks to be a bruising battle over the public funding of broadcasting.

The new Republican majority in the lower house of Congress, emboldened by sweeping victories in November, has called for across-the-board cuts in discretionary spending. And although they’ve been criticized for a lacking specifics, it didn’t take long for a few conservative lawmakers to offer them, including Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), who introduced a bill his month to eliminate all federal funding for the Corp. for Public Broadcasting, the org charged with distributing funds to public stations, National Public Radio (NPR) and Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), and another bill that would more narrowly restrict any tax dollars going to NPR.

“Government-funded broad-casting is now unnecessary in a world of 500-channel cable TV, satellite radio and cell phone Internet access,” Lamborn wrote in an op-ed in the Hill on Jan. 12 after introducing the legislation. (CPB has an appropriation of $430 million this year.)

Public broadcasting’s common defense, that federal funding contributes only about 15% of the total public-media budget, generates a counter-argument: Why can’t private institutions fill the gap?

In other words, it’s not about forcing public television to become more efficient; it’s about its very existence.

Perhaps just as disconcerting for the public broadcasting community was the effort in December by congressional Republicans to eliminate funding for NPR, fueled by the furor that surrounded the firing of commentator Juan Williams.

Conservative commentators continue to support the idea, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor continues to present the idea of de-funding of NPR on his website YouCut.

But it’s unclear how much of this is posturing.

Public broadcasting has faced the ax many times before, only to be saved via aggressive lobbying from avid viewers and the occasional visit of Big Bird to Capitol Hill. The Newt Gingrich revolution of the mid-1990s brought calls to eliminate such federal funding, with the perception among many lawmakers that it was a subsidy for the liberal elite. Some painful cuts were made, but in the end, the CPB was saved.

This time, there’s the added toll of a severe recession. For many public stations, federal support has been the one constant as private donations have fallen and state and local funding has been drastically reduced.

Their anxieties intensified when the two bipartisan chairs of President Obama’s deficit commission, Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, made elimination of CPB funding part of their recommendations for getting federal spending under control.

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