Tauzin bill good, bad for PBS

Subsidies increased 63%, but new commission could wreak havoc

WASHINGTON — Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) will have some good news and some bad news for PBS general managers gathering in Miami this week.

In a satellite address to pubcasters scheduled for today, the House telecommunications subcommittee chairman will unveil a bill which authorizes a 63% increase in the annual funding levels for pubcasters to $475 million. The proposed legislation also endorses an additional subsidy of $475 million, spread over five years, to help broadcasters make the transition to digital television.

On the down side, the bill would also set up a blue-ribbon commission that would ponder the future of public broadcasters, including the elimination of the Corp. for Public Broadcasting. Also on the commission’s agenda would be a proposal to limit funding for non-commercial stations to one per market. That means in markets like Washington were there are five non-commercial stations, four TV licenses might be put on the auction block.

Currently, pubcasting’s annual subsidy, which is administered by the Corp. for Public Broadcasting, is hovering around $300 million. Although pubcasters say they need $750 million for the transition to digital television, the $475 million transition fund proposed by Tauzin’s bill is an increase from White House’s offer of $450 million.

Although the telecommunications subcommittee will make the recommendation for pubcast funding, ultimately it is up to the Appropriations Committee to decide how many federal dollars will be set aside for non-commercial television and radio.

The blue-ribbon panel would examine a proposal to allow commercial stations to finance pubcasting stations. In return for the financial contribution to their local PBS station, commercial stations would be relieved of specific public-interest obligations. It is not clear what those obligations will be, but one duty many broadcasters would like to be free from is the weekly requirement to air three hours of educational kidvid.

The bill also has the support of the highest-ranking Democrat on the House telecommunications subcommittee, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). Markey likes the legislation because it increases the annual funding level for pubcasters — an increase which Markey hopes will relieve pubcasters’ growing reliance on program sponsorships to pay for programming.

“If we do not reverse the steady weakening of underwriting standards,” said Markey in a statement to be released today, “the pressure to advertise will rip this national treasure from its commercial-free roots and leave it drifting in a river of commerce.”