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PBS Chief Paula Kerger: ‘Outcome Is Uncertain’ for Federal Public-Television Funding

PBS chief Paula Kerger is sounding an alarm over the undecided future of federal funding for public broadcasting.

“This is a dynamic situation and the outcome is uncertain,” Kerger said Sunday at the Television Critics Association press tour. Kerger’s bi-annual exchange with reporters was dominated by the looming threat of defunding — which Kerger said would have a catastrophic effect.

“For stations in rural parts of the country, it is a significantly greater part of their budget,” Kerger said of Corporation for Public Broadcasting money. “If that funding goes away, it represents an existential crisis.”

In May, President Donald Trump proposed a federal budget that would eliminate most funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The CPB received an advanced appropriation of $445 million for 2020 — funding for public broadcasting is set two years in advance — with Trump proposing to eliminate nearly all of that. The bulk of CPB money is distributed through grants to PBS and NPR member stations, who use it primarily to cover operational costs.

In rural areas where broadband access is limited and local public television stations are among the only programming options, CPB funding can account for more than 50 percent of a station’s budget.

“PBS itself will not go away, but a number of our stations will,” Kerger said, talking about the possible outcome should CPB be defunded. “There isn’t a plan B for that. For all of us in public media, we have linked arms to make an effective case because we know what’s at risk if that funding disappears.”

Kerger singled out Alaska as one state where public broadcasting would be especially hard hit.

Two weeks ago, the House appropriations committee passed a bill that approved full funding for public broadcasting. But the House budget committee has voted against continuing federal funding. Budget legislation still must wind its way through the Senate and a possible full House vote.

The loss of funding for local stations would have a trickle-up effect for PBS. “If our resources are diminished, we’ll have to make some very tough decisions in terms of what we can afford to do,” Kerger said.

The PBS chief also spoke about the death last year of “PBS NewsHour” co-host Gwen Ifill. Kerger said that a permanent replacement for Ifill to join host Judy Woodruff should be announced “sometime in the next few months.”

Kerger also stated that PBS will continue to explore original American drama series production following the cancellation in March of “Mercy Street,” the public broadcaster’s first original American drama in more than a decade. “We’re not withdrawing from that arena,” Kerger said. “We’re really very interested in scripted American drama and American stories.”

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