Economic crisis may force cuts in aid to pubcasting

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Public broadcasting supporters are bracing for at least some downsizing of federal aid this month.

Most Hill observers say it’s tough to convince members of Congress — especially those who promised voters to slash spending — that partial support for public media is every bit as important as helping homeless veterans or giving Head Start services to young kids.

No one is eager to predict exactly what will happen in the next two weeks as the Democrat-controlled Senate reacts to the continuing resolution from the Republican-majority House, which would trim some $60 billion out of President Barack Obama’s fiscal year 2011 budget request of $3.8 trillion.

That big budget cut, in other words, would save about 1.6 percent of the federal budget. Eliminating the $460 million CPB appropriation would trim 0.012 percent.

The House and the Senate agreed on one thing. Last week, they delayed the deadline for decisions on the FY11 budget — the fiscal year that began in October — from March 4 to March 18.

“At this point, any and all funding for public broadcasting is at risk,” the Association for Public Television Stations said in a reply to questions from Current. The largest sum at stake is CPB’s $460 million advance appropriation for 2013 proposed by the Obama administration. “In addition … important public broadcasting programs like [the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program], Ready To Learn and the Rural Digital Program” are also on the block. Also at stake: any remaining CPB funds for this year that haven’t already been obligated by contract or grant agreement.

Additional millions in program grants to public TV and radio producers from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Science Foundation are at risk. The popular WNET children’s show Cyberchase, for instance, will reach the end of a $1.5 million grant April 30. Last year NEA’s Arts on Radio and Television initiative spent $4 million on 53 public media productions; a new batch will be announced this month.

“We don’t know how those might be affected,” said Victoria Hutter, NEA spokeswoman. “We just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

“A fundamental fight”

With both parties eager to avoid increasing taxes, deepening the $1.5 trillion deficit, limiting the war chest or threatening Social Security, they’re focusing on the small slice of the budget that does not include entitlements and the Pentagon.

“Republicans in the House read the midterm election as a mandate to slash spending,” said one Hill Democratic aide who declined to be identified in this story. “This is a fundamental fight. It’s not just about CPB or anybody else. This is a broad spectrum, across-the-board question: Does Congress gut what the government does, or not?”

“Everything, from defense to arts funding to public broadcasting, must be able to justify itself,” said Phil Bloomer, spokesman for Rep. Timothy V. Johnson (R-Ill.), a member of the House Public Broadcasting Caucus.

John Lawson was president of APTS during the most recent funding fight in 2005. “On paper, the situation was worse then,” he told Current. “We faced not only Republican control of House but also the Senate and White House.”

However, Congress in 2005 still had a share of Republican moderates. “When we had our up-or-down floor vote in 2005 to restore $400 million in CPB funding,” Lawson said, “we had almost 40 percent of the Republican conference” (Current, June 27, 2005).

When the bill headed for the Senate, it landed on the desk of the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and related agencies, moderate Republican Arlen Specter (Pa.) — a longtime supporter of public media. That’s the subcommittee that oversees CPB funds.

This time, a key defender, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), couldn’t even find one Republican co-sponsor for his amendment to restore CPB funding to the continuing resolution. The amendment was defeated in a procedural vote on the House floor around midnight Feb. 16. Reaching into the offices of 120 or so new members is the hardest job for APTS, the organization said.
With Democrats running the Senate, public media have champions chairing two key panels: Jay Rockefeller, (D-W.Va.), chair of the Appropriations Committee, and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chair of its Labor-HHS subcommittee.

“I have always believed that public broadcasting is a national treasure,” Rockefeller said in a statement to Current. “It offers a diverse and engaging range of educational and children’s programming, as well as news, and is a valuable asset.” No doubt Rockefeller also hears a lot about pubcasting at home, as he’s married to Sharon Rockefeller, president of WETA in the Washington, D.C., area.

“We all know what public broadcasting means to Americans,” Harkin said in a statement to Current. “Practically every household benefits from public broadcasting and would be impacted by the extreme cuts in the House budget plan.”

Still, Democrats face agonizing decisions, especially in the Labor-HHS subcommittee. “Harkin has a lot of programs he’s fighting for, things that have mattered to him throughout his career,” Lawson said. “Public broadcasting is just one.” Other longtime issues for Harkin: public health, workforce training, child labor abuses — and deficit reduction. Lawson asks: “How high up is public broadcasting on his list?”

As chair of the subcommittee, Harkin “will be at the table when the deal goes down,” Lawson said. “There are a lot of priorities to fight for. He’s a solid supporter, though, so he’ll do what he can. But there are going to be some painful choices for Democrats.”

How vital is “nice to have”?

President Barack Obama remains a supporter. His fiscal year 2012 budget, released Feb. 14, would increase CPB spending from $430 million this fiscal year to $445 million in FY12. However, it also zeroes out PTFP, the Department of Education’s Ready to Learn children’s reading program and the Department of Agriculture’s subsidies of rural digital infrastructure.

Another prominent advocate for public media has signaled that it doesn’t object to cutbacks for the field. An editorial in the Washington Post Feb. 26 troubled Lawson. The newspaper, a loud voice of the city’s center-left establishment, is saying that with so many other budget lines at risk, pubcasting no longer has high priority.

“Public radio and television provide levels of serious news and cultural coverage and of civility that are otherwise not prevalent in today’s media,” the editorial acknowledged. “. . . It’s true that if Washington got the bigger, harder things right — controlling health-care costs and aiming entitlement programs at those who really need the help — there’d be enough left over for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. . . . But as a matter of politics and fairness, some of the nice-to-haves are going to have to take a hit: There are worthy things that government is no longer going to be able to do.”

Outside the Beltway, pubcasters in rural areas are also encountering similar attitudes — and those stations are among the most vulnerable to cuts, APTS said. “Rural public broadcasting stations are particularly dependent on federal funding for the operation of their service,” it said. “For many rural stations, federal funding represents 50 percent to as much as 80 percent of their total revenue.”

Many of those areas are served by conservative members of Congress, typically backers of budget reductions but also friends to local stations serving their own far-flung constituents, many with low incomes and few resources for information.

“The victim from this cut will be all of the red-state rural stations,” predicted Phil Smith, g.m. of KIXE in Redding, in the San Francisco Chronicle. Smith said he had warned Rep. Wally Herger (R-Calif.), who had voted for the continuing resolution cuts, ‘You’re going to be wiping out all of your friends with this.’”

Elimination of CPB would mean “we won’t just lose All Things Considered or Sesame Street,” predicted Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) in a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters March 1. “We would also lose a consistent source of innovation for the broadcast industry.” He said he’ll “fight for this critical funding as the budget process continues.”

“Marathon march” ahead

The American people also appear to be in pubcasting’s corner. That’s apparent from results of a February poll taken for PBS by two firms who work for opposing parties.

Of 804 registered voters surveyed, 79 percent thought PBS should get “the same amount of government funding” or “more government funding” compared to the present aid level. Fifty-six percent said they would be concerned “a great deal” if PBS were forced to significantly cut back on children’s educational shows. The polling firms were Hart Research Associates, which has worked for Democratic organizations, and American Viewpoint, whose clients have included the Bush-Cheney campaign and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Meanwhile, pubcasting’s 170 Million Americans grassroots campaign, run by APTS and American Public Media, has generated some 270,000 e-mails to Congress through its website, according to NPR’s V.P. Mike Riksen. He told the NPR Board Feb. 25 that the campaign had set up a “solid base camp that moved quickly up the mountain.” A “marathon march” still lies ahead, he said.

“Public broadcasting can still win this fight,” Lawson said. “But cold-eyed stewardship requires planning for all scenarios.”  If federal funding is cut or ramped down, he said, public broadcasting still will need “a strong CPB, not a weakened one, to manage a downsizing of the infrastructure in an orderly way. Through years of consulting studies and system consultations, CPB has the tools to do that.”

“The bottom line is that public media has to survive, no matter what.”

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