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How public TV can double its federal funding 

APTS President John Lawson laid out the organization's multipronged fundraising strategy most recently in a presentation to Maryland Public TV officials in April [2003]. This commentary is adapted from his remarks.

Commentary published in Current, May 12, 2003
By John Lawson

By commissioning the recent work of McKinsey & Co., CPB has performed a valuable service for public television. It is vital that we assess our current economic condition with unblinking clarity. The recent CPB-sponsored round robins have facilitated a robust and healthy debate about the future of our troubled industry.

McKinsey and CPB, however, would do well to take a second look at what is emerging as a major new growth area for public stations: federal funding tied to specific services delivered through DTV and other means. As someone who has successfully advocated for federal funding for a range of causes and clients for more than 13 years, I believe we could potentially double current federal funding through this approach. The possibilities are far too great to be ignored.

A disciplined approach to new funding prospects will build on public television's successes to date. New sources could include existing federal funding programs as well as new ones that could be created. Standing alone, none of these funding opportunities is an instant fix from Congress that will "save" public television. Taken together, however, these funding sources can complement the business initiatives under consideration by CPB to substantially improve the fiscal situation of our system.

The APTS Board's enhanced services strategy directs the staff to work with subsets of its membership to achieve specialized objectives. Advancing our traditional policy and funding agenda, financed through member station dues, remains our core mission, and CPB funding and authorization remain our highest priority. The board's new strategy, however, creates a mechanism for APTS to do something more. Now we can help like-minded groups of member stations to pursue additional funding for services of particular interest to them.

Here are some of the internal and external partnerships that APTS has begun or is considering:

Digital Education Content Collaborative

In the last reauthorization of the massive Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, renamed The No Child Left Behind Act in this version), Congress preserved and extended two stand-alone programs that already fund public television directly--Ready To Learn and Ready To Teach. A coalition of stations, called the Digital Education Content Collaborative (DECC), came together in 1999 to persuade Congress to authorize a new program of grants directly to local public stations for the production of digital curriculum content.

This campaign--organized under APTS and the National Educational Telecommunications Association and managed by my former consulting company, Convergence Services Inc.--was ultimately successful. Congress included the DECC program as a new use of funds under the Ready To Teach program. Ready To Teach also continues to support the TeacherLine professional development program through PBS.

Getting this new station grant program in the final legislation, signed into law by President Bush in January 2002, was no small feat, given that many existing programs were consolidated into block grants. Congress followed through by appropriating funds for the program in its first year. The U.S. Department of Education sought grant applications for the first time last summer, attracting 17 applications. When it announced the grantees in October, Maryland Public Television and Twin Cities Public Television were two of the three winners.

In the FY 2003 Omnibus Appropriations Bill approved by Congress in February of this year, funding for our ESEA programs was preserved and increased. PBS deserves a great deal of credit for its steadfast support of legislative advocacy for Ready To Learn and TeacherLine--advocacy now contracted to APTS. Combined with our work for DECC, the PBS-APTS contract has enabled us to convince Congress to preserve and grow our edtech funding.

Potential: Estimated annual funding potential for 2010: $75 million. (The initial FY 1997 appropriation has grown already from $8 million to $37.5 million.)

Rural Broadband Coalition

Last year, when Congress reauthorized the Farm Bill (officially, the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act), public television sought specific language regarding an existing grant program, the Distance Learning and Telemedicine (DLT) Program. Because of certain eligibility criteria in earlier legislation, public television stations had great difficulty in competing successfully for grants under the program, now authorized at $100 million per year.

APTS, responding to member stations' needs, organized them as the Rural Broadband Coalition. The coalition's campaign has already met with success. Congress added language in the Farm Bill conference report that directs the Secretary of Agriculture to give priority in awarding DLT grants to public television stations serving rural populations through digital broadcasting.

Further, Congress created a new $15 million line item specifically for public digital television in this year's omnibus appropriations bill. The Agriculture Department is now developing the regulations to establish grant criteria. Digital translators as well as transmitters are expected to be eligible for funding. This program eventually could fund receivers, applications and services. 

Potential: Estimated annual funding potential for public TV by 2010: $25 million to $50 million.

Higher Education Coalition

APTS has established an important new collaboration with the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges. Last June the higher education group voted to establish a working group with APTS to pursue policies that would fund activities of partnerships between institutions of higher education and public television stations.

Since then, other higher education groups have joined the collaboration: the American Association of Community Colleges, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, and the American Council on Education. On the public TV side, the initiative has the support and advice of 33 APTS-member licensees.

The working group is likely to seek legislation to fund projects including research and development on digital asset management, a new generation of distance education services, and teacher professional development. One likely legislative target is the Higher Education Act, which Congress will take up later this year. APTS, on behalf of the working group, has hired a leading education lobby firm, Van Scoyoc Associates, and is identifying other potential legislative targets.

Potential: Estimated annual funding potential for partnerships between public TV and higher education by 2010: $35 million to $50 million.

Workforce Skills/Adult Literacy Coalition

Another coalition of public stations and community partners has been organized through APTS by Ginni Fox and Sandy Welch, working with Kentucky Educational Television. The goal is to develop and campaign for legislative proposals to fund a new generation of adult literacy services, continuing education and workforce training. Legislative vehicles under consideration include the reauthorization of key adult education legislation, including the Workforce Investment Act and the Perkins Vocational Education Act. The former bill is already moving through the House Education and the Workforce Committee, and early reactions to our proposals are positive.

Potential: Estimated annual funding potential for public television-community partnerships by 2010: $35 million to $50 million.

Homeland Security Coalition (proposed)

The federal government is beginning to provide major outlays to upgrade emergency communications services at the national and local levels. Training for first responders and other personnel is also attracting major new funding. Many of these efforts were authorized in legislation that created the Department of Homeland Security. Congress also created a new appropriations subcommittee to handle yearly funding for homeland security. Many stations have expressed interest in increasing advocacy in this area, and APTS is developing a proposal to take to its members.

In Kentucky, Dallas and New Jersey, datacasting to PCs through public digital television is already proving to be a unique and powerful addition to emergency notification capabilities on a statewide, metropolitan or regional basis.

APTS has a multipart strategy to use public stations' full capabilities. We are working to secure legislative language that gives public stations "a seat at the table" as new emergency communications systems are funded, planned and deployed. APTS is working to secure funding for local demonstration projects to develop and test DTV datacasting. Through my service on the FCC's new Media Security and Reliability Council, we're exploring options for public television to participate in the much-needed upgrade of the national and local Emergency Alert System.

Potential: Estimated annual funding potential for public television as part of local, state, regional and national systems by 2010: $75 million to $125 million.

CPB Digital Transition Funds

After three years of frustration for public broadcasting, APTS led efforts to secure targeted funds for the digital conversion. CPB received $20 million in FY 2001 and $25 million in FY 2002 to distribute to public stations. In the FY 2003 omnibus appropriations bill, Congress nearly doubled the digital line-item to $48 million. An increasing share of these funds will be allocated for public radio's digital conversion, which APTS supports.

The field has needed to give priority to the build-out of transmission infrastructure, but we may have a chance to ask Congress for more flexibility in designating some future digital funds for production equipment and/or content research and development. Prospects for success are uncertain.

Potential: Estimated annual funding potential for public television digital production equipment and content R&D (over and above regular CPB appropriations) by 2010: $50 million.

Add it all up

By 2010, these programs could total $295 million to $400 million in new service-based funding for public digital television. This is in the range of this year's entire CPB appropriation, $365 million.  In other words, this targeted approach could nearly double today's federal funding for public stations by the end of the decade. In doing so, it could attract many matching dollars at the state and local levels.

These are just projections, of course. Uncertainties abound, and many hurdles would have to be overcome to achieve these funding levels. Nearly all of these programs require partnerships. But other opportunities exist, and these projections may also be conservative. For example, the APTS Grant Center is helping our stations more effectively compete for grants under a range of existing programs.

Unless we broaden our conception of services we can offer, and set our sights on new sources of funding, we will miss what I believe are these golden opportunities.

John M. Lawson is president of the Association of Public Television Stations.

Lawson with curly graying hair, dark suit and dark red tie

Current's home page
Earlier commentary: Lawson says public TV stations are missing out on educational technology grants.
Outside link: APTS website.



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