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PBS prexy hopeful on funds

Mitchell sees public passion for pubcaster

PBS prexy-CEO Pat Mitchell said she’s optimistic that proposed cuts to public broadcasting will be overturned but admits there are several more hurdles.

Speaking to reporters on the first day of the TV Critics Assn. press tour, Mitchell said the “unexpected” debate over the pubcaster’s funding had at least elevated public awareness and interest in PBS.

“What impresses me is the huge passion people feel in public TV,” she said. “The public says it’s a good investment of dollars.”

Mitchell continued to take Corp. for Public Broadcasting chief Kenneth Tomlinson to task for insisting that some of public broadcasting’s programming is biased.

“Our editorial standards require balance over our schedule — and that’s the statutory definition of balance,” she said. “Our editorial standards work. Eighty percent of Americans see no bias.”

Mitchell flew to the press tour immediately after Monday’s Senate Appropriations Committee meeting, in which Tomlinson took heat from Democratic senators for spending money on trying to demonstrate an alleged bias in PBS programming.

Mitchell said she was frustrated with the fact that so much of the debate over PBS content had been reduced to a squabble over liberal vs. conservative voices. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), on Monday said he supported public broadcasting funding even as he believed PBS needed to offer more balanced political programming fare.

“The balance question is not just about political bias,” she said. “You can’t program any media by political equivalency. There are many sides to every issue… Our balance is much bigger than a half-hour here and a half-hour there.”

The exec also pointed out that only a fraction of PBS’ programming could even be considered politically controversial.

“Out of the 3,000 hours we programmed (last year), less than 30 raised to the level of controversy,” she said. “There seems to be an overfocus on one thing that we do.”

Asked whether Tomlinson’s spotlight on political balance was meant to convince PBS not to tackle controversial issues, Mitchell added, “If that was the intention, he’s failed.”

A CPB inspector general is currently investigating Tomlinson for paying a group $14,000, without board consent, to monitor Bill Moyers’ former PBS show to spot liberal bias (and other shows to contrast those program’s perceived lack of bias). Tomlinson defended that move, as well as his decision to hire two Republican lobbyists last year to garner congressional insight, at Monday’s hearing.

Mitchell quipped that rather than hiring a group to secretly survey PBS shows, “We could have supplied him a complete list of guests on the Moyers show for free.”

As for whether she believes Tomlinson should resign — a move several Democrats have called for — Mitchell said, “I don’t report to him, and he doesn’t report to me. I have no say over his coming or going… We did not call for his resignation. Some people have. I think this inspector general’s reports about the surveys and the use of taxpayer dollars are obviously big issues, and they’re not going to go away.”

As for public broadcasting funding, it now appears likely that the Senate committee will recommend keeping money that House counterparts had slashed, including $23 million for the children’s programming “Ready to Learn” initiative, as well as millions to help convert public stations to digital. The Senate committee votes on Thursday and then sends the bill to the Senate floor for a full vote.

The House of Representatives had previously voted to restore CPB’s $400 million budget, having initially cut that figure in committee, but eliminated the “Ready to Learn” and digital dollars. The two floors will have to meet in conference committee later this year to merge the bills.

Meanwhile, PBS is still struggling to find new corporate underwriters for programs such as “Masterpiece Theatre.” Pubcaster has been forced to reduce the number of “Masterpiece” programs now that ExxonMobil no longer funds the show.

PBS is currently funding the show itself, which means it will air just half as many “Masterpiece Theatre” episodes this year.

“It’s worrisome, and nobody has an explanation,” Mitchell said of the difficulty to find sponsors for drama programs.

Despite the channel’s funding issues, “I’m amazed we still get producers who spend as much time fund-raising as producing,” she said. “The good news is, the best producers still want their programming on PBS and are willing to go through the hassle.”

As for the channel’s top gig, PBS has hired a search firm to replace Mitchell as prexy-CEO and hopes to start interviewing candidates by September. Mitchell said she announced her retirement from the broadcaster a year and a half early in order to allow PBS “a thoughtful transition of leadership.”

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