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Pressler spectrum plan no smash

Plans by Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) to bail out public broadcasting by selling off spectrum reserved for commercial TV stations appeared to gain little support during a Sept. 14 Senate Commerce Committee hearing.

Pressler’s proposal was trashed by fellow Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Slade Gorton of Washington, but for different reasons. McCain said he believes the plan is unfair to commercial broadcasters, while Gorton questioned why lawmakers who now control the purse strings of PBS and NPR would want to give up that control.

Debate over the future of pubcasting is linked to the desperate desire of deficit-cutting Republicans to raise $14 billion in spectrum-related revenue.

Pressler – a former foe of public broadcasting – emerged as the industry’s unlikely champion this week by proposing upfront auctions of digital TV spectrum that commercial TV stations have been counting on receiving for free.

Under the Pressler plan, $4 billion of the revenue raised through auctions would be placed in a public broadcasting “trust fund” that would spin off enough coin in interest to replace the $285 million that Congress annually doles out to the Corp. for Public Broadcasting.

Public broadcasting officials hailed the Pressler proposal. “If properly implemented, (it) can end the need for an annual (congressional) appropriation without harming our nation’s public broadcasting system,” said NPR prez Delano Lewis.

But Pressler’s fellow lawmakers weren’t buying the plan, particularly if it involves upfront auctions of spectrum, and the conventional wisdom in D.C. following two days of hearings was that the Pressler plan has little chance of passing.

Critical opposition came from Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C), the ranking Democrat on the commerce committee, who said he opposes tinkering with plans allowing commercial TV stations access to new-age digital TV.

Moreover, McCain said he will offer legislation sponsored in the House by Rep. Jack Fields (R-Texas) that raises the $14 billion in spectrum-related revenue without requiring early auctions.

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