Public stations raise alarm over effort in House

PBS, NPR and public stations are once again sounding the alarm as House Republicans have proposed zeroing out federal funding for public broadcasting.

The hope is that the battle over funding will not be as bruising as it was last year, when an emboldened new Republican majority in the House was anxious to send a message about cutting from the federal budget and a controversy erupted over a conservative website “sting” of NPR fundraising practices that led to the resignation of its CEO.

On Tuesday, the House Appropriations Committee, led by Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), unveiled a funding proposal that rescinds $111.3 million from the budget to the Corp. for Public Broadcasting in fiscal year 2013, $222.5 million in 2014 and then eliminates all funding in 2015. An appropriations subcommittee will consider the proposal on Wednesday.

CPB prexy-CEO Patricia Harrison said that “the issue of federal funding, and the recommendations in this bill, go directly to whether the United States should have a public broadcasting system.”

Patrick Butler, president and CEO of the Assn. of Public Television Stations, said that stations already have seen their total federal funding cut by 13% over the past two years, and the proposed cuts “would mean the end of public broadcasting in America.”

They each pointed to a recent Booz & Co. report provided to House and Senate appropriations committees by the CPB. The study concluded that, despite a plethora of alternative funding sources including merchandising, advertising, spectrum sales and fundraising, “there is simply no substitute for the federal investment” in public broadcasting. It warned of a “domino effect,” in which dozens of stations would be at risk of disappearing, with remaining stations and programming services subsequently suffering. “The loss of federal support for public broadcasting risks the collapse of the system itself,” the Booz report said.

The House also voted to eliminate funding last year, but that effort was turned back by the Senate, where funding was largely kept in place following an aggressive lobbying campaign in which viewers and listeners were urged to use social media and other methods to press for continued allocations. The same scenario could play out again.

The current appropriation for CPB calls for $445 million in 2013 and in 2014. The Senate Appropriations Committee and the White House have both recommended continuing that level of funding.

While rhetoric against public broadcasting has waned compared to last year, advocates aren’t leaving anything to chance.

The rationale behind elimination of funding is that PBS, NPR and other public stations could fill the gap with funding from private sources. On the campaign trail in Iowa late last year, Mitt Romney said that “Big Bird is going to have advertisements,” reflecting a sentiment that stations can come up with new ways of generating revenue and that it didn’t make sense to be “borrowing from China to pay for it.” And as much as PBS has enjoyed success with shows like “Downton Abbey” and “Sherlock,” it’s far from clear that such shows have a strong enough constituency to drive additional private and commercial funding.

Not lost on advocates was that the Republican proposal calls for rescinding funding already appropriated. CPB operates on a two-years-out, advanced appropriations cycle that was set up to shield public broadcasting from the whims of politics.

“This provision is particularly important to maintain the editorial independence of NPR and all those that produce news programming,” NPR said in a statement. Its president and CEO, Gary Knell, said that the organization is “disappointed and troubled” by the House proposals.

The funding woes are likely to be a topic this weekend as PBS prexy-CEO Paula Kerger appears before journalists in Beverly Hills at the summer press tour. She said that the cuts would have a “devastating effect on public television stations, especially those in rural areas.”

But given that funding battles have been playing out, off and on, for years, it’s not likely to dominate the event. After all, Saturday evening has a buffet dinner, reception and press conference with the cast of “Downton Abbey.”

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