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Pubcasters on the ropes

Stations fend off funding hook

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.

But it’s unclear whether any of the House bills will get very far, given that there is one big difference from 1994: The Democrats still control the Senate.

PBS prexy Paula Kerger says it is “still a little bit early to tell” how it will all shake out this year, but she worries not just about cuts to future budgets but to the funding that is already in place, as Republicans have said they would like to make across-the-board reductions to this year’s spending.

“We just need to make sure that our story is told,” Kerger says, noting that the influx of new members of Congress, primarily Republicans, has placed particular pressure on the need for local stations and supporters to contact their representatives to state their case.

Patrick Butler, president and CEO of the Assn. of Public Television Stations, said in a recent speech that the “cost of public broadcasting is barely a rounding error in a $3 trillion federal budget, but underlying our negligible budgetary impact is a more philosophical argument about whether the government should be in the media business at all, and especially in economically challenging times like these.”

Butler added that public broadcasting “cannot expect to completely escape the barber’s chair” — but he was “quite confident that we can win this battle as we’ve won them in the past.”

CPB president Patricia Harrison and other public media leaders see federal funding as seed money that draws other donors, and defend the efficiency of a system that is forced to do more with less. But they also see public media as even more important given today’s nature of discourse.

Public broadcasters hope to identify polling that shows NPR and PBS stations scoring high in public trust. Even more than they did in the 1990s, they cite such numbers as an opportunity to highlight the contrast between point-of-view commercial news networks and, when it comes to entertainment, channels like Bravo, A&E and History that have drifted to more sensational reality shows. And then there’s public broadcasting’s ongoing investment in children’s television, often connected with school curriculums, which has allowed public television to build a constituency of parents who see the public broadcast nets as a safe TV oasis for their kids.

Neil Shapiro, president of PBS station Thirteen/WNET in New York City, notes that “cable channels are doing what commercial channels were doing. They may have had missions of arts and culture and history, but the reality is they are about ice trucks and fishermen and pawn shops, and whatever dysfunctional groups you can find. … I think what has happened over time is the depth of public television and commercial impulses are more stark than they have ever been.”

A recent report from the Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute, called “Rethinking Public Media,” suggests dramatic changes to public television and radio with much more emphasis on local news and information — moves that could help lessen the need for federal government funding. The report’s author, Barbara Cochran, professor at U. of Missouri, notes the growth in public radio audiences, with strong programming that has helped even stations with limited resources establish local identities. She sums up her recommendations with a motto — “more local, more inclusive and more interactive” — and sees the need for TV and radio stations to cooperate or combine, and to establish partnerships with print outlets and local orgs. She also recommends redirecting the CPB’s priorities, perhaps changing its name to the Corp. for Public Media, with funding formulas altered to reflect the new digital landscape.

“By emphasizing to Congress that support is going to strengthen local stations, public broadcasters may be able to avoid getting caught in partisan attitudes about national programming,” Cochran wrote.

Cochran sees several models, including ideastream.org, a public media entity in Akron, Ohio, which partners public broadcast, cable and broadband resources, as well as private entities, to provide more distinctive multipurpose community content.

In New Jersey, the state’s public television and radio network NJN is struggling with state budget cuts, and once again there are talks about its future, including merging operations in some way with New York’s WNET. Shapiro cites the ability to achieve “economies of scale,” something the org did in 2003 with a Long Island station, although some kind of plan would have to be in place to ensure that the Jersey station stays local.

In Los Angeles, three public television stations are forming a partnership to share resources, but the true test of localism may be the kind of programming that a fourth, KCET-TV, is able to deliver after dropping PBS affiliation in a dispute over funding dues for its programming.

As smart as it may be to go ever-more local, the question is how to really get there — or how even to change the conversation so focused on cuts.

Willard “Wick” Rowland, CEO of Colorado Public Television in Denver, says, “You’re spending a great deal of political capital on the Hill just to keep what you’ve got, instead of being able to look ahead to growing the pie. That’s probably the most serious and misunderstood consequence of these periodic bouts that we have. I used to think that they were just periodic events of no significance, but now I think it’s a way of keeping a lid on(us).”

Sam Thielman contributed to this report.

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