CPB finds room for media innovation in 1967 Public Broadcasting Act

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — CPB executives say their new legal analysis of the Public Broadcasting Act shows that the statute allows the corporation flexibility to fund media beyond television and radio.

At a CPB Board meeting Monday, General Counsel Westwood Smithers Jr. told directors that his reading of the Act shows that CPB “has a lot of flexibility” in allocating discretionary funds, “and the stations have a lot of discretion in the use of their CSG [Community Service Grant], which is intended primarily for programming.”

CPB’s fresh look at the Act, which established the public broadcasting system in 1967 and set formulas for spending in 1981, is part of its two-year “Future of Public Media Initiative.” The project will examine changes in how people use media and how those shifts bear on public media’s missions of education, journalism and civic engagement.

The study also will provide the basis for changes within CPB “in terms of data and research and personnel that we need to confront the future of media,” Michael Levy, e.v.p., told the CPB Board.

In the past, “much of our conversation about our own statutory authority was about how we perceive it as tying our hands,” Levy said. “We looked at it as the Public Broadcasting Act, when we are now in the age of public media. So we asked our general counsel to take a look at our Act in a different way, one that gives us opportunity and provides us with the ability to innovate.”

Smithers examined wording in several sections of the Act. He told the board that in creating the Act, “Congress was prescient in realizing that things might change in the future and that its concept then of public media might become something entirely different.”

Smithers said that lawmakers “not only made provision for adapting to change but encouraged CPB to pursue change, to look at nonbroadcast platforms and delivery, and new technologies.”

Also, Congress did not define “programming” in the Act, Smithers said, which gets no more specific than “public telecommunications services.” “That’s very broad,” he said.

Programming that the lawmakers knew then is no different from “the audio and video content that we get off the Internet today, whether it’s interactive, segmented, streamed, you name the ways in which you can retrieve it,” Smithers added.

Smithers’ analysis raised a question for board member Bruce Ramer, a Los Angeles attorney: “Are we thinking about going to Congress to update or change the Act?”

“No!” Smithers loudly replied, prompting laughter among board members familiar with the political complications that would be involved.

But Smithers didn’t rule out the possibility completely. “In three or four years, if things change so dramatically that we can’t fit whatever the new trend is into our statute, then maybe,” he said.

The Broadcasting Act mandates that CPB dole out money according to a formula, with 89 percent of its federal appropriation going to stations. Of that, 75 percent goes to TV and 25 percent to radio.

Another part of the federal appropriation is also discretionary, which gives CPB more leeway on how to distribute it. But the CSG funds are more tightly regulated. In 2004, CPB got into trouble with the U.S. Government Accountability Office over the corporation’s Television Future Fund, which set aside some CSG funds for station research and development. The GAO considered that discretionary use, not permitted for CSG money. CPB shut down the fund after the GAO’s findings.

In other news from the meeting, the board approved recommendations from its Spectrum Broadcast Committee updating television Community Service Grant policy. The proposals clarify key financial issues surrounding the FCC’s 2016 spectrum auctions, which could bring millions of dollars to stations from wireless providers eager to purchase more bandwidth for mobile devices.

The board unanimously approved the proposals with one amendment. The committee had advised that auction revenues not count as nonfederal financial support (NFFS). A station’s NFFS affects whether it qualifies for a CSG as well as the amount of the grant it receives. The board amended that to also prohibit interest and dividends earned on auction revenues from going toward the NFFS total.

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  • jackbrighton

    As we increasingly call ourselves public media, instead of public broadcasting, we should applaud this news. Interestingly, while the statute is important as a legal framework, the spirit of the statute is reflected in President Lyndon Johnson’s “Remarks Upon Signing the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967.” Some excerpts:

    “So today we rededicate a part of the airwaves–which belong to all the people–and we dedicate them for the enlightenment of all the people.

    “I believe the time has come to stake another claim in the name of all the people, stake a claim based upon the combined resources of communications. I believe the time has come to enlist the computer and the satellite, as well as television and radio, and to enlist them in the cause of education.

    “If we are up to the obligations of the next century and if we are to be proud of the next century as we are of the past two centuries, we have got to quit talking so much about what has happened in the past two centuries and start talking about what is going to happen in the next century beginning in 1976.

    “So I think we must consider new ways to build a great network for knowledge-not just a broadcast system, but one that employs every means of sending and of storing information that the individual can rise….

    “Eventually, I think this electronic knowledge bank could be as valuable as the Federal Reserve Bank. And such a system could involve other nations, too–it could involve them in a partnership to share knowledge and to thus enrich all mankind.”

    In 1967 the first computer networks were just beginning to emerge from research at institutions like Stanford Research Institute, Xerox PARC, and several other public universities who not coincidentally were also deeply involved in educational broadcasting. We were just beginning to imagine the possibilities for using computers and networks for purposes of education and public service. Whether or not LBJ’s remarks were based on an awareness of the specifics of this work, they foreshadow the media world we live in today — and it’s potential for public good.

    The definition and scope of public media needs to reflect the technologies and cultural practices of the times, and this new analysis by CPB is correct in addressing that reality. Or as LBJ also noted, “Yesterday’s strangest dreams are today’s headlines and change is getting swifter every moment.”