WASHINGTON — Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) told the CPB Board Monday that he asked House Democrats to stop “using the assault on public broadcasting as a fundraising technique.”
The founder and chair of a congressional caucus to support public broadcasting also took advantage of his appearance before the CPB Board to make his own assault on public TV’s pledge programming.
Blumenauer said that when he learned the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was citing the threat to public media support in fundraising messaging, “I took the DCCC chair aside and said, ‘Please don’t.’ I don’t even know if he knew about it. But it stopped.” Blumenauer initially said he heard about the campaign from CPB staff, but a spokesperson later told Current that a public media advocate alerted him.
Blumenauer said he hopes the work to preserve federal funding for public broadcasting won’t become “intensely political” and “weaponized.” Advocating for support “can be done in a civil and thoughtful way,” he said.
“I don’t think it turned out well for Mitt Romney to run against not just Senator Obama but also Big Bird,” Blumenauer said, referencing the Republican candidate’s jabs at the Sesame Street character during the 2012 campaign.
The congressman stressed the importance of federal funding. “It is absolutely essential that we keep the public-private partnership in place,” he said. “Make people understand that having some federal money is strength.” Federal funding allows stations to subsidize coverage of rural areas, he noted, and helps them raise nonfederal funds as well.
Blumenauer also addressed another source of public broadcasting revenue: pledge programming. He cautioned that public broadcasting is “reaching a point of pledge-break saturation.”
“Even though I go do pledge drives, I find it a little tedious,” he said. “We risk wearing out our welcome, frankly. And if we think we’re going to commercialize public broadcasting more, we lose what’s unique about being noncommercial.”
Any additional pledge programs, he predicted, “will provide less support, not more.”
Blumenauer added that lawmakers widely respect public broadcasting and cited “support from Republicans, Democrats and independents, all of whom want to maintain or increase the level of support,” he said.
Meanwhile, not all of CPB’s own board members are in line with that goal.
Director Howard Husock cast the only “nay” vote when the board approved a resolution to submit CPB’s fiscal year 2019 budget request to the Office of Management and Budget. The request contains the corporation’s forward-funded 2021 general appropriation and 2019 interconnection appropriation to create a new distribution network. CPB has not yet disclosed those figures, discussed in executive session Monday.
When Husock attempted to explain his reasoning behind the vote, Chair Lori Gilbert cut him off and said that discussion should have taken place during executive session.
Husock later told Current that he didn’t see the point of making his statement in executive session because the rest of the board disagrees with him. “But I did feel an obligation to explain my vote in public,” he said.
“I moved to this position reluctantly over the last few years,” Husock said. “I think the system needs to be shaken up. A great many practices need to be re-examined. Short of seeing a real effort internally to do that, I felt that some kind of shot across the bow is the healthiest thing at this point. Industries of all kinds change under pressure and change in healthy ways.”
“The system needs a profound stock-taking,” he said. “So I reluctantly voted no.”
Husock has not been silent about his views on federal support. He has written op-eds for the Washington Post and The Hill calling for defunding of CPB. Fellow directors chastised him at their April meeting over the Post commentary. Gilbert and director Bruce Ramer also fired back at Husock’s latest commentary with their own Hill piece Monday criticizing his opinions.
Digital work ahead
In other news from the board meeting, attendees heard about CPB’s efforts to expand digital content distribution by investing in infrastructure and professional development at stations.
Maja Mrkoci, VP, digital innovation, said CPB is taking a “three-pillar approach” by working to change organizational culture at stations, making digital work efficient and financially sustainable, and focusing on an increase in content production.
“For a long time, we have been providing a one-to-millions communication,” Mrkoci said. “Now we must provide one-to-one communications times millions” via digital platforms, she said.
CPB is supporting change from the bottom up with a six-month Digital Immersion Initiative offering professional development for employees at PBS stations. From the top down, the Digital Culture Accelerator Initiative is a pilot project helping three stations — UNC-TV in North Carolina, ideastream in Cleveland and WBHM-FM in Birmingham, Ala. — develop best practices for increased production and distribution of digital content across the system.
For another initiative, focusing on digital infrastructure, “we need systems to pull content together and then push it out to viewers, to PBS, to Facebook,” said Bob Kempf, VP for digital services at WGBH in Boston. “We must do this in a coherent way. Now we have multiple systems and a fragmented approach.”
Throughout the system, investments in infrastructure “are uneven at best, even at larger organizations,” Kempf said. “And it’s not consistent for smaller stations and independent producers.”
These issue surfaced in conversations at public media conferences with Silicon Valley–based KQED board members, CPB COO Michael Levy said. National organizations and stations urged CPB to take a leadership role, he said.
Advisory team members for the digital work are Kempf; Tim Olson, chief digital officer at KQED in San Francisco; Scott Nourse, PBS VP, digital product development; and from NPR, Stephanie Miller, managing director of digital services, and Jonathan Epstein, senior director of digital technology.
Outlook for auction wrap-up
CPB Board directors also heard that the FCC’s spectrum auction did not result in major areas losing over-the-air public TV service. But some smaller areas will encounter problems, reported two PBS executives.
The relinquishment of channels, challenges of repacking spectrum and displacement of translators will affect stations for several years, said Tom Rosen, senior director of standards and practices.
Over the next 36 months, 148 public TV stations will move to new channels, said Eric Wolf, technology strategy and planning VP. And 284 of 561 public TV translators will be displaced.
Ted Krichels, CPB’s SVP system development, told directors that members of a station advisory panel on Community Service Grants to TV stations met following the auction to revisit their previous recommendations.
“The panel agreed that the original recommendations were appropriate and that no additional policy adjustment was required” due to the auction’s impact on the system, Krichels said.
Under those policies, public TV stations in channel-sharing agreements must maintain control of at least half of their spectrum and cannot count auction revenue, interest or dividends as nonfederal financial support. Stations that fall short of the guidelines could lose CPB support. Also, stations that relinquished all of their spectrum in the auction must return CPB funds from any open grant period.
The panel also recommended that CPB should maintain the current level of the TV Distance Service Grant for three years to stations that involuntarily lose translators after the auction repack. The grant supports licensees that operate multiple transmitters or translators.
Corrections: An earlier version of this post incorrectly attributed Michael Levy’s quote to Bob Kempf. It also mistakenly reported that a pillar of CPB’s new digital strategy involves distribution of digital content; it does not. The revised post also clarifies that the CSG advisory panel recommended that CPB maintain the current level of TV Distance Service Grants for three years. And it has been revised to include updated information from Rep. Blumenauer’s office about how he learned of the DCCC’s fundraising tactics.