Though its chances of advancing in Congress are considered slim, the proposed budget put forth this week by House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan would zero out funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Ryan said in the budget document released Tuesday that federal subsidies for CPB and the National Endowment for the Humanities could “no longer be justified.”
“The activities and content funded by these agencies go beyond the core mission of the federal government,” the document reads. “These agencies can raise funds from private-sector patrons, which will also free them from any risk of political interference.”
The proposed budget does not stipulate whether the zeroed-out funding would apply to the already appropriated two-year funding cycle, or whether it would be implemented after the forward-funded cycle. Patrick Butler, president of the Association of Public Television Stations, said the proposal was expected. Ryan’s staffers told Butler a few weeks ago that the proposed budget would include zeroed-out funding.
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.
Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) is replacing the recently deceased Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, where she will command the task force of senators that determines federal spending on many endeavors including public broadcasting, Mikulski’s office announced Wednesday.
CPB’s financial analysis on alternative funding sources for public broadcasting, prepared by consultants at Booz & Co. and delivered to Congress in June, has had little impact on lawmakers’ views about continuation of CPB’s annual federal appropriation to date, CPB staff reported during a Sept. 10 board meeting in Washington, D.C.
In the report, analysts for Booz examined a range of options for replacing CPB’s federal aid — from selling commercial advertising to tapping spectrum auction proceeds or selling pay-channel subscriptions, among others. They concluded that withdrawal of federal aid would have a “cascading debilitating effect,” starting first with stations serving rural areas and ultimately leading to collapse of the public broadcasting system. The dire predictions haven’t made much difference in swaying lawmakers on Capitol Hill, CPB’s government affairs staff reported to the board. “I think it’s fair to say that in the past two-and-a-half months there’s been a little change in the conversation regarding funding for public broadcasting, and the idea of commercials,” said Michael Levy, CPB executive vice president. CPB staff have been meeting with key Republicans and Democrats on the House and Senate appropriations committees to discuss why a purely commercial model for public broadcasting is not a viable option. The Booz analysis predicted that public TV could earn more revenue from commercial advertising sales than it now does from underwriting, but the switch to ads would prompt a large portion of those who provide private support to the field — individual donors, foundations and underwriters — to withdraw their support, resulting in a net revenue loss.
Congress doesn’t work that way, said Wilbur Mills, the formidable chair of the House Ways and Means Committee in the late 1960s. Bill Moyers, then a young aide to President Johnson, recalled the upshot of the Public Broadcasting Act: Congress created CPB but left it without a dedicated revenue source, destined to lobby unceasingly for annual appropriations. This account is excerpted from Moyers’ speech to the PBS Showcase Conference in May 2006. (The full text of the speech is also on this site.)
… When he signed it, the President said that the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 “announces to the world that our nation wants more than just material wealth; our nation wants more than ‘a chicken in every pot.’ We in America have an appetite for excellence, too….
Probably the most famous congressional testimony delivered on behalf of CPB appropriations came from Fred Rogers on May 2, 1969. The young writer/producer/host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood made common cause with Sen. John Pastore (D-R.I.), who chaired the Senate Commerce Committee’s communications subcommittee. Public broadcasting was seeking an appropriation of $20 million, and the Nixon White House was proposing half as much. Margaret Mary Kimmel and Mark Collins narrate the scene in their book, The Wonder of It All: Fred Rogers and the Story of an Icon (PDF, scroll to page 20). “It’s a strange moment in the hallowed halls of the Senate,” Kimmel and Collins write — “a grown man reciting a child’s song to other grown men, but by now they feel as if they, too, are complicit in Rogers’ mission.”