House committee approves independent program service for public TV

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The House Energy and Commerce Committee yesterday approved a public broadcasting funding bill that would create a separate program service for independent producers and establish a board to evaluate public broadcasting’s programming for minorities.

The House included the two provisions in the Public Telecommunications Act of 1988, which authorizes $1.26 billion in federal funding for public TV and radio for fiscal years 1991-93. The money, funneled through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes $200 million to replace public broadcasting’s aging satellite program distribution system.

“These funding requests represent a compromise,” said the bill’s sponsor, telecommunications subcommittee Chairman Edward Markey (D-Mass.), as he introduced it to the full committee, chaired by Michigan Democrat John Dingell.

“They are a midpoint between what CPB requested and the administration wants.”

The bill directs CPB to fund a program service for independent television producers that would have the goal of increasing innovation and diversity in public television programming. The independent service would start in fiscal 1990, which begins October 1, 1989.

The bill instructs the corporation to work with independent producer representatives to come up with a budget and a separately incorporated organization “that is acceptable to the corporation.” The amendment requires CPB to make an annual report to Congress on the new service, and submit a final report on the service’s achievements at the end of the next authorization period — Sept. 30, 1992. The amendment also removes an earlier proposed definition of independent producer that would exclude all producers working in affiliation with any public broadcasting entity.

Although the amendment includes no specific funding level for the service, sources said House aides plan to mention in the report language accompanying the bill an annual funding level of $6 million, and perhaps several million dollars to pay for administration of the service.

“I’m delighted that the full committee has approved this bill and that there is an appreciation and a recognition of the need for a funding structure dedicated to independent production,” Larry Sapadin, cochairman of the National Coalition of Independent Public Broadcasting Producers, said yesterday. “The addition of this provision recognizes the important role that independents play in creating a diverse program mix in public broadcasting.”

Rep. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.), along with Reps. Mickey Leland (D-Texas) and Cardiss Collins (D-Ill.), proposed a minority evaluation board, which would report to Congress annually for three years on public TV and radio’s service to minorities. In fiscal 1992, the board could propose legislative changes to improve this service. CPB would appoint the review board, which could not include anyone working at a public broadcasting organization. House aides reportedly hope to include a $3 million annual funding target for minority programming.

The full committee’s action yesterday follows the House telecommunications subcommittee’s unanimous approval of the measures June 30 [1988].

Attempt to cut funds

Committee Democrats fended off Republican attempts to cut CPB’s authorization. In the first of two amendments, Rep. Michael Oxley (R-Ohio) proposed cutting CPB funds for fiscal 1991-93 by $268 million. In an attempt to persuade his colleagues, Oxley reminded them of a July 6 letter from James Miller, director of the Reagan administration’s Office of Management and Budget, opposing the increases. “This authorization is once again veto bait,” Oxley insisted.

Moments after the committee rejected the amendment, Oxley introduced another provision that would require CPB to solicit private funding to replace public broadcasting’s satellite system and reduce the federal contribution by the same amount. The committee rejected the proposal.

Rep. Howard Nielson (R-UT) introduced yet another amendment — on behalf of his absent colleague, Virginia Republican Thomas Bliley — that would require local public TV stations to establish review boards to evaluate the objectivity and balance of the programming they air.

“This is a fairly shocking amendment” responded Washington Democrat Al Swift.

“What we’re doing here is establishing a censorship board under the guise of objectivity and balance.”

Republican Don Ritter of Pennsylvania, one of 57 congressmen and senators who two years ago called on CPB to analyze the objectivity of public TV programming, said the review boards would be too cumbersome, and opposed the amendment.

The House committee’s action is a victory for independent producers, who launched a high profile lobbying effort last fall to convince Congress that they needed a separate independent producers’ fund. They continued to press for the separate fund in House and Senate hearings last fall and spring.

In making their case, independents complained that CPB’s television program fund has provided them with a smaller and smaller proportion of program fund monies, despite Congressional direction requiring the corporation to provide independents with “substantial” funding. Corporation officials, using a different definition of “independent producer” claim independents receive almost half of the funds from CPB’s $37 million TV program fund.

After the hearings, Markey and several other Congressmen pressured the two sides to resolve their disagreement, and made it clear that if the two sides could not reach a compromise, Congress would legislate its own solution.

Differs from Senate bill

Reauthorization legislation proposing identical funding for CPB is pending in the Senate. But the Senate bill does not include the independents’ production fund, and proposes cutting CPB’s TV program fund by 80 percent. The money would instead go to stations to purchase or produce national programming. This creates a potential problem in moving forward with the legislation, since the Senate bill would not leave CPB enough money to fund the independents’ and minority services the House envisions. Both Dingell and Swift reportedly are suspicious of the Senate proposals.

One byproduct of the Senate bill is an unlikely convergence of interest between independent producers and CPB executives, since both oppose the Senate’s plan to slash CPB funding. Independent producers feel public TV stations will be even more reluctant to fund them, and less easy to pressure. CPB executives say the Senate bills would strip them of the authority they need to meet their Congressional requirements.

Capitol Hill aides said both House and Senate bills could move to the floor late this month or early next month, when Congress returns to work after the Democratic convention. Assuming the Senate and the House pass their respective funding bills, representatives from both chambers must meet to agree on a single bill. That could happen as early as next month, according to Hill aides, but more likely will occur in September. Then the bill will go to President Reagan for his signature or veto.

The House authorization action paves the way for the House labor, health, and human service appropriations subcommittee to approve an appropriations bill. Meanwhile, Senate bills that would appropriate $245 million to CPB for fiscal 1991 and $57.5 million for satellite replacement are pending.

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