Some stations rebellious at PBS 'penalty'

Originally published in Current, April 3, 1995

By Karen Everhart Bedford

Rumbles of discontent over PBS's revised dues and membership policies sounded from managers of some public TV stations in March 1995 with the arrival of a lengthy document that formally lays out the new rules.

The station commitment form and several appendices -- the products of an extended, systemwide "conversation" about festering financial issues within the PBS family -- implements controversial assessments or penalties on stations that do not agree to common carriage and underwriting requirements.

Approved by the PBS Board in January 1995 as part of a comprehensive package to restore the financial viability of the National Program Service, the new policy tackles difficult issues that PBS and its member stations have tiptoed around for decades.

Critics of the policy say that, with Congress bearing down on public broadcasting to reduce its reliance on federal funding, this is not the time to take up such internally divisive issues, particularly the underwriting rules.

"We are aiming our gun directly at our feet again," said Rick Breitenfeld, president of WHYY, Philadelphia, who opposes the policy.

Common carriage and a uniform approach to underwriting, two objectives that PBS handled gingerly because of the system's fierce protection of local decision-making, were put in the package to help make national program underwriting more attractive to corporations, according to those who developed the plan and are charged with implementing it.

PBS President Ervin Duggan, who began his leadership at Braddock Place more than a year ago with a pledge to address the system's problems through consensus-building, rejects the view that PBS is threatening to "penalize" member stations that violate the guidelines.

The reform "calls for the freedom of any station to go beyond the [underwriting] guidelines if they are willing to share those additional proceeds with the collective of member stations," Duggan said in a recent interview. "That is not a penalty. It is a sharing of riches generated" which "offsets the loss of national underwriting income."

The station commitment form does indeed present the new policy as optional. On both the common carriage or underwriting rules, stations have the choice of two check-off boxes: one indicating agreement to honor the policies, and the other a willingness to pay a "non-standard usage fee" of 20 percent of the station's 1996 program dues.

To Breitenfeld, however, the policy grants PBS "extra-legal power" that threatens station autonomy and will cause "great internal upheaval."

"Unless this is put to rest in a civilized manner very quickly ... PBS will have the kind of problems it needs not at this time," he added.

Confusion, angst and fear

Exactly how many stations oppose the new policy is unclear, but sources estimated 40 to 80. Back when the board approved the reform package in January, one opponent put the number of complaining stations at 15 to 20.

During a recent conference call for Southern Educational Communications Association (SECA) member stations to discuss the reform package, participants from 10 or more stations indicated that they disagreed with the policy, though not all for the same reasons, said Skip Hinton, SECA president. He noted that less than half of the southern group's 68 members participated in the call.

Hinton said stations' concerns break down in a several areas, the first being "penalties as a matter of policy." Some who have no other objections to the commitment form and have no problems complying with it, "just don't agree with [PBS] assessing a penalty." Others are unhappy with the network's restrictions on local underwriting, or are uneasy about how "onerous" it will be to gain exemptions from common carriage requirements.

Wayne Godwin, president of WCET, Cincinnati, and a PBS Board member who sat on the task force that developed the plan, described station objections to the reforms similarly, noting that the principle of penalties is "most contested or protested area."

"There are people who were not aware that this was working its way towards a fee structure," said Burnie Clark, president of KCTS, Seattle, and chairman of the Community Station Resource Group, an organization of the 12 largest community licensees that gathered in Chicago in March. PBS's reformed membership rules were discussed at the meeting, Clark said, noting that station executives are concerned about how the penalities, which were unpopular when proposed, became a matter of policy.

When managers debated a draft reform package at the 1994 fall planning meeting, "there was a great deal of concern and confusion about how [penalities] would work," explained Clark. The pricing task force, chaired by Louisiana Public Broadcasting Executive Director Beth Courtney, pledged to reexamine those provisions based on station input before making its final recommendations to the board. "There's a gap in information between what happened at that point in the discussion process and the board's decision and the draft contract," Clark explained.

Courtney last week said that the task force did evaluate managers' responses to the proposed plan and found that more stations endorsed it without qualification than conditioned their support on changes.

"It is still the position of the board, Ervin [Duggan, PBS president], and the task force that we are going in the right direction," she said. "That doesn't mean we wouldn't have flexibility in implementation.''

The task force will reconvene later in April to discuss how to translate the policy into practice, and will look specifically at the penalty system, Courtney added. She acknowledged that, because the underwriting and common-carriage requirements were recommended by a different task force, her group did not spend much time evaluating how those policies would work.

The system is in such a state of panic over threats to its federal funding that it has created an "angst and fear of the unknown," she added. In the midst of this, "we're trying to have a rational discussion about what we're going to do."

Commitments delayed

Uncertainty over federal funding has forced PBS to delay its dues commitment process as Congress completes work on a rescission bill that could reduce CPB's appropriation for fiscal 1996 by as much as $47 million.

Bob Ottenhoff, PBS executive v.p., added that policies implemented with the commitment form reflect the outcome of a year's worth of deliberations by task forces, station reps and the PBS Board. "None of these issues should be new and surprising to anybody. There seemed to be significant consensus on doing a better job of defining what it means to be a PBS member."

None of the policies approved by the board infringe on the rights of stations, he continued. The rules govern "how a station uses a program that all members of PBS paid for and that PBS is distributing on behalf of its member stations."

"The purpose is to protect the programming and make sure it continues to receive national support," said Ottenhoff, noting that the policies are "silent" on what stations do with their own programming.



Common carriage is achieved when all local stations air a program at the same time, or at least on the same day, usually the day when PBS distributes it by satellite. It makes national tune-in publicity more effective but interferes with stations' local scheduling.



To Current's home page

Earlier news: PBS plans disincentive for stations airing ad-like underwriting spots, 1995.

Later news: Forty stations balk and PBS rethinks the penalty, 1995.


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