Tauzin's simplified bill backs substantial DTV aid

Commercial TV "will never make the best use" of the medium, LeVar Burton (right) told Chairman Tauzin (left). (Photo copyright 1999 by Robert Visser, Photopress Washington.)

Published in Current, July 5, 1999

By Steve Behrens

House leaders of both major parties last week endorsed an authorization bill for CPB that nearly meets pubcasting's request for digital conversion aid, while boosting CPB's annual appropriation 40 percent to $475 million in fiscal year 2002. [Text of bill.]

The short, three-page bill--H.R. 2384, introduced June 29 and promptly backed by House Commerce Committee leaders--is likely to move farther through Congress than its predecessors, which died in subcommittee while attempting to reform pubcasting and find a permanent financing mechanism. The 1997 and 1998 bills by House telecom subcommittee Chairman Billy Tauzin (D-La.), never left subcommittee. Nor did 1995 and 1996 reform bills by his predecessor, Jack Fields (R-Tex.).

Tauzin said last week that a "slimmed-down" bill is best in the near term, but he wants to pursue reforms at another time. "Please don't assume ... that we're not concerned about reforms," he said. He and ranking Democrat Edward Markey, who previously spoke up for a trust fund and favored 10-second underwriting credits, both noted concerns about commercialization.

Both the chairman of the full Commerce Committee, Rep. Thomas Bliley (R-Va.), and its ranking Democrat, Rep. John Dingell (D-Ill.) showed up at the June 30 hearing to back pubcasting as an alternative to violent programming on commercial TV.

"I commend these programmers for swimming against the tide of the coarse programming that has become the staple of commercial broadcasting," said Bliley in a release, though he deplored "government handouts" that may be "displacing voluntary sources of funding" for pubcasting.

Dingell said last week's Annenberg Public Policy Center report (story, page 4) was "a powerful argument for us to support public television."

Louisiana pubcaster Beth Courtney, chairman of APTS, noted in her testimony that when the high-school shootings occurred in Littleton, Colo., Louisiana Public Broadcasting was ready to broadcast a pre-produced program for children about student violence and conflict resolution. "We were already prepared," she said, "because that's the business we are in."

Like Dingell, other House members voiced support for pubcasting, describing it repeatedly as a "jewel" or "treasure" of the nation.

Four years ago, the House was trying to "zero-out" CPB funding. "What a difference a few political seasons make," observed Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.).

A generous authorization bill doesn't necessarily mean money in the bank, of course. Tauzin's bill could be amended downward in the Senate, and the resulting appropriations typically come out smaller than authorizations.

In addition to authorizing increased CPB operating aid for fiscal 2002, Tauzin's bill proposes digital and equipment total spending of $749 million over five years, approaching pubcasters' official request of $770 million for digital transition aid. The digital funding would flow in separate streams through the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program and CPB:

"A key word there is 'distribution,'" points out APTS Vice President Marilyn Mohrman-Gillis. CPB is still consulting with the system about how its new digital money would be spent, she said, with APTS contending that a key role for the CPB money is to supplement the PTFP equipment funds, which will be largely earmarked for basic DTV transmission equipment.

"The CPB money under the legislation would be given to stations as grants for very broad purposes," she said, which could include transmission as well as the master-control and production equipment necessary to put local DTV programs on the air.

If the authorization is passed by Sept. 30, it will preserve Congress's first piece of DTV aid--$15 million appropriated for this fiscal year on the condition that an authorization be adopted by then.

PBS President Ervin Duggan, among the pubcasters testifying at the hearing, noted that public TV stations had already raised some $250 million for the DTV transition, mostly from state governments, and said those states are "expecting a match from the federal government."

At the end of the hearing Tauzin picked up the challenge, noting that Congress should help with the DTV transition "in fairness to the state legislatures."

Authorizing legislation is overdue, as Tauzin observed. The last authorization was enacted in 1992, and it expired in fiscal year 1996. Since then, Congress has appropriated aid to CPB for six fiscal years--1997-2001--without pulling together a successful bill to authorize the spending.

The new bill would catch up to some extent by authorizing previously enacted appropriations of $300 million for fiscal 2000, which begins in October, and $340 million for 2001.

For 2002-2006, the bill would cap CPB aid at $475 million. For those years, the bill turns back to the old "matching" principle. It would formally set each year's appropriation at 40 percent of the level of pubcasting's total nonfederal financial support (NFFS), two years earlier. But NFFS amounts already are so large that the formula would put the appropriation above $600 million, so it's likely to smack the bill's ceiling of $475 million.

What the heck?

Star of the friendly hearing was LeVar Burton--longtime host/producer of Reading Rainbow, though members of the House panel appeared more interested in his role in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Also on the panel were the presidents of CPB, PBS, NPR and APTS, as well as WGBH Chief Technology Officer David Liroff, Center for Media Education Executive Director Jeff Chester, and APTS Chairman Beth Courtney, who joshed Louisiana-style with Tauzin.

PBS's Duggan showed off the interactive DTV package--he called it "enhanced digital television" or "EDTV"--that was produced with Intel backing for last fall's broadcast of Ken Burns' "Frank Lloyd Wright" biography. The package featured the sonorous voice of Wright's grandson, snatches of Beethoven on the soundtrack, and interactive 360-degree images inside famous Wright buildings. Tauzin called it an "excellent demonstration."

Chester supported funding for public broadcasting but criticized its "commercialization," particularly the underwriting spots for Chuck E. Cheese pizza and Juicy Juice beverages that accompany PBS children's programs, which he said are clearly designed as ads to appeal to children. He also objected to the web links from PBS Online's kidvid pages to commercial pages controlled by the underwriters. PBS's "buffer" pages inserted between its Arthur pages and the underwriter web pages are ineffecutal and meaningless to children, he contended.

Tauzin later gave a nod to Chester's concern, but not everyone opposed the underwriting. Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) said he'd much rather have kids see a blurb for Juicy Juice rather than an ad for Beast Wars action toys.

Subcommittee members generally weren't on the warpath, but did gently remind the pubcasters of their favorite issues. The subcommittee's top Democrat, Markey, asked Coonrod for an update on CPB's work with independent producers and minority consortia. Coonrod said CPB was working with the Independent Television Service to agree on a multi-year contract to replace its one-year pacts with CPB, and said CPB is preparing to increase aid to the minority consortia.

Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) urged that CPB grant formulas take into account the need for translator stations in the mountainous West. Coonrod said he was "very aware" of the stations' difficulties with translators.

Wilson asked skeptically why pubcasters were using TV as a way of encouraging young people to read, as Reading Rainbow aims to do. LeVar Burton said the producers knew that children spend three hours a day, on average, with television. "Our intent was to go where they are ... and then draw them back" to books, he said. Coonrod and Duggan joined in the response and then Courtney, who said some public TV projects for children actually give books to kids and encourage them to turn off the TV and read.

Tauzin quizzed the panel of witnesses to draw out arguments in defense of federal aid to pubcasting.

The congressman asked LeVar Burton at one point about the difference between commercial and public television. Burton said it was "an issue of balance." The actor said he'd been "very fortunate" in working on Roots, Star Trek and Reading Rainbow, which all "tried to do more than just entertain the audience."

"I am proud of the things I and others have done in the commercial arena that stir the imagination and encourage the soul," Burton said earlier in his testimony. "But commercial television alone will never make the best use of this powerful and pervasive medium, especially when it comes to children."

Later, playing Devil's advocate, Tauzin asked "what the heck do we need public broadcasting for," when cable systems and the Internet are offering hundreds and soon thousands of audio and video options?

Duggan was ready with six reasons--one of them asserting that public TV is controlled locally while commercial TV is run by distant, global corporations.

He and Jeff Chester also said pubcasting brings higher quality. Chester joked that the History Channel chews over so much World War II footage that "Hitler should have kept the TV rights."


To Current's home page

Earlier news: States and local governments have approved $160 million or more in digital transition aid to public TV stations, by recent tallies in June 1999.

Text of the bill, H.R. 2384.


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