APTS congressional champion delivers ‘tough love’ to pubTV leaders

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A radio broadcaster-turned lawmaker who chairs a key House subcommittee with oversight of CPB delivered a pointed critique to public TV station execs about their prospects for preserving federal aid in the 113th Congress.



During a Feb. 26 breakfast hosted by the Association of Public Television Stations at the Library of Congress, Oregon Rep. Greg Walden (R) warned a roomful of station executives that they face an uphill battle in rebuilding bipartisan support for the field. Republican views of public broadcasting are colored by negative baggage carried over from the 2010-11 political scandals over NPR, and the notion that increased competition from cable and digital channels has made public TV less relevant to television viewers, Walden said.

The event, part of APTS’s annual Public Media Summit, celebrated Walden as a “Champion of Public Broadcasting,” and the lawmaker used the occasion to deliver what APTS President Patrick Butler later called “tough love.”

Walden referred to recommendations of a 2007 Government Accountability Office report on public TV’s financing to make his point. The report concluded that federal funding is important to sustain public television, but Walden pointed to its description of how competition from cable and satellite TV networks had affected public TV’s audience service.

“In other words, others are doing what only you used to do, such as nature and travel and cooking and drama,” he said.

Public broadcasters could strengthen their case for federal aid if they agreed to direct congressional appropriations to equipment and operations and fund programming and content exclusively with money raised in the private sector, Walden said. He also called on pubcasters to choose sides in the debate over the federal budget, urging that they “support major reforms in government spending programs unrelated to you all, the entitlement programs.”

Walden chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on communications and technology, which oversees CPB authorization and the Federal Communications Commission. He is also a former commercial radio station owner who has been very active on legislation dealing with broadcast spectrum. In 2012 he helped launch the bipartisan Federal Spectrum Working Group; he also co-authored major spectrum legislation. Walden has worked with Butler to help to secure federal aid to assist public broadcasters with spectrum-related costs.

Walden talked up the opportunity that the upcoming spectrum auction presents to public TV stations, recommending during his acceptance remarks that stations consider relinquishing their signals in exchange for revenue.

He pointed to Apple TV, Netflix, Hulu and YouTube as examples of increased competition for PBS, and didn’t acknowledge that PBS has a presence on all four platforms. He also suggested that allowing viewers to watch PBS programming online would result in a decrease in financial contributions to public media.

“Public broadcasting could usually count on the over-50 crowd and children under 6, but that’s changing, too. Our son Anthony watches Big Bird on OPB. His kids will probably watch Big Bird over the Internet,” Walden said.

It’s not the first time that Walden has publicly chided public broadcasters. He criticized NPR during a 2011 interview on C-SPAN and, more recently, delivered similar comments during a forum sponsored by Oregon Public Broadcasting last fall on the future of public media. As during the OPB forum, fellow Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D) was on hand during the APTS event to respond to Walden’s critique.  Blumenauer is a previous recipient of APTS’s Champion of Public Broadcasting Award and founder and co-chair of the recently resurrected Public Broadcasting Caucus.

“There’s nobody doing what you’re doing,” Blumenauer said to attendees of the APTS breakfast reception. PBS’s program slate is “only the combination of noncommercial, creative, visionary activities.”

PBS President Paula Kerger and other pubcasting leaders objected to Walden’s remarks, but not until after both Oregon lawmakers had left the building. “I know Greg Walden has done a lot for public broadcasting, but he needs to take a look at his TV listings,” Kerger said. To illustrate, Kerger compared the primetime line-up for that night. While PBS was airing Makers: Women Who Make America, a three-hour documentary on the women’s rights movement, History would be airing Pawn Stars, Bravo would be airing The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and TLC would be airing 600-Pound Mom.

Butler, who has a strong working relationship with Walden, tried to soothe frayed nerves. The lawmaker’s “tough love,” he said,  “accurately reflected the lack of knowledge [on Capitol Hill] when it comes to what it is that we do.”

In an interview, Butler later told Current that Walden was speaking broadly about how the Republican establishment views public broadcasting, not sharing his own personal views. But, he acknowledged, Walden’s phrasing had been “inartful.”

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