COLUMN ONE : PBS: Behind the Sound and Fury : Why should taxpayers support a ‘sandbox for the rich’? critics ask. Who would want to kill Barney? backers cry. Politics and rhetoric obscure fight over federal funds for public broadcasting.
At .0003% of the federal budget, public broadcasting doesn’t even rate a mention in the fat document’s index. But to Newt Gingrich, the $285-million appropriation is a vivid example of how an out-of-touch liberal Establishment has captured control of the nation’s purse strings.
So, at a recent news conference, the House Speaker stepped up to the plate, just as he’s done routinely since launching his campaign to halt taxpayer subsidies for what he calls “this little sandbox for the rich.”
“The only group lobbying (for public broadcasting),” Gingrich declared, “are a small group of elitists who want to tax all the American people so they get to spend the money.”
Across town at the National Press Club, Lamb Chop’s sidekick was helping Public Broadcasting Service President Ervin Duggan plead his case. If Gingrich wants to play the political game of “us vs. them,” who better for the PBS crowd to trot out as the face of “them” than doe-eyed puppeteer Shari Lewis, the ebullient redhead who is entertaining a second generation of children on public TV?
Over a cup of coffee before Duggan’s speech, Lewis branded charges of elitism as “dumb”--60% of the households who watch PBS make less than $40,000. The argument that government should not be involved in culture, she said, is “barbaric”--Canada and England spend more than $30 per person on public broadcasting each year, compared with America’s $1. And the system does not waste taxpayer dollars, she said, noting that her wardrobe designer on “Lamb Chop’s Play Along!” buys the cast’s shoes at Ross Dress for Less.
Welcome to Washington’s culture wars, Act I, Scene I: the fate of public broadcasting. Nobody pretends that federal funding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is more than a nick in the federal budget. But the tug of war over its future makes for grand political theater, rich in the symbolism of the times. Lawmakers and interest groups on both ends of the ideological spectrum see much political capital to be gained by drawing attention to it.
So far, public broadcasting’s prospects appear grim. Executives at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the federally funded agency that doles out taxpayer money to local stations--14% of the system’s total budget--are girding for deep cuts from the Republican-controlled Congress; more pessimistic scenarios point to a gradual elimination of federal funds altogether. And some legislators are talking of schemes to privatize the system by selling off all or some of it to investors.
How that would ultimately affect the 110 million people who watch public television and the 18 million who listen to public radio each week is anybody’s guess: The system is a complex pastiche of nearly 1,000 locally controlled stations in varying states of health. But it’s likely that rural areas would lose stations, while everyone else would find slimmer pickings in their program guides.
That doesn’t bother conservatives, who extol the range of options in broadcast and cable that the free market has spawned and see nothing wrong with public TV competing in that market.
With an explosion of media outlets, “the original justification for taxpayer funding of public broadcasting due to ‘market failure’ no longer holds water,” says Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.), who plans to introduce legislation to privatize the system.
In a symbolic nod to free-market media, Gingrich overlooked PBS icons Barney and Big Bird to bring Fox-TV’s “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” to Congress on its opening day this month. Banned from many preschools because of the real-life karate kicks they inspire, the Rangers epitomize to public-broadcast allies the crass commercialism spawned by profit-seeking producers. The Rangers were uppermost on Lewis’ mind when she said: “You cannot trust the market to take care of our kids.”
But to many Republicans, Barney and Big Bird are the ones who have something to answer for: These critics argue that a handful of producers are getting rich off lunch buckets bearing pictures of plump purple dinosaurs and goofy yellow birds while PBS goes begging to Congress for money.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) insists that he and his colleagues don’t want to kill Barney and Big Bird, “we just want to transform them from government bureaucrats to free-market entrepreneurs.”
The attack on public broadcasting comes from three fronts: fiscal conservatives who want to prove that in these tight times all nonessentials must go; free-market devotees who see CPB as the next grand experiment in privatization, with harder-headed business decisions and investors filling in for government subsidies; and ideological conservatives who complain of a liberal bias in public programming.
Democratic lawmakers see in Gingrich’s “elitism” comments a calculated political strategy: When budget-cutters come under attack for trimming programs for the poor, they can point to CPB as an example of a program for the “rich” that was axed.
Lost in this war of words are the seemingly mundane details of how stations will struggle to survive in a world without federal money. Los Angeles’ KCET-TV, Channel 28, which is getting a grant of $2.4 million from CPB this year, says it very likely would have to eliminate “Life & Times,” its signature local public-affairs series.
Ruth Seymour, general manager of KCRW-FM, says the Santa Monica station would take a $600,000 hit that would necessitate “a reassessment of everything we do-- everything .”
Classical-music station KUSC-FM says it might drop Garrison Keillor’s popular “Prairie Home Companion.” Jazz-outlet KLON-FM would consider a shorter broadcast day. At KPBS-TV and KPBS-FM in San Diego, program manager Pat Finn says she would have to consider scrapping local documentaries, the promotion department, the program magazine and perhaps the radio news department. And an estimated 2 million Spanish speakers around the country who listen to the programming produced at KSJV-FM in Fresno would probably lose a major source of news and public affairs.
“This is not rich people’s radio,” says Hugo Morales, executive director of Radio Bilingue, which operates KSJV and four other Spanish-language stations from Modesto to El Centro. Without its $917,000 from CPB--which is 53% of its annual budget--”we’ll just be spinning more records.”
PBS President Duggan calls the elimination of federal funds “assisted suicide” and likens the 14% subsidy to “money that a farmer spends on his seed. If you destroy the seed, the rest of the planting can’t be done.”
CPB Chairman Henry Cauthen says that one-third of the system’s TV stations would go under without the subsidy. And radio might have it worse. “I’m already bare-boned,” complains Judy Jankowski, general manager of KLON-FM at Cal State Long Beach. “I’m sitting here with a diaper on. I can’t take any more off.”
But it’s difficult to accurately predict what would happen if Congress zeroed-out support, because the mix of funding at each station varies dramatically.
“Public TV is not a network,” explains CPB’s chief executive officer, Richard Carlson. “Each station is member-owned. It’s like a rickety house with a strong foundation, a house held up with mop handles.” Ditto for public radio.
CPB, an umbrella agency whose overhead and executive salaries are set by Congress, directs more than 90% of its federal appropriation to 351 television and 629 radio stations. The stations raise another $1.5 billion from other sources, including corporations, individuals, foundations, universities and--with the exception of a few states, such as California--legislatures.
Rural stations, with fewer community resources on which to draw, inevitably would be hit the hardest. Indeed, their plight could provide a nub of compromise. Gingrich told reporters this month that he was interested in a proposal by Rep. John Porter (R-Ill.) to end help for financially secure stations, mainly in big-city markets, while continuing funding for the small-market outlets.
But it’s those big-city stations--such as KCET, Boston’s WGBH and New York’s WNET--that help produce the major national programs that define public television.
Without federal dollars, public broadcast officials insist that funding for new programming would dry up. While CPB does not produce or own shows, it does provide grants to local stations and independent producers who put together programs, typically relying on tax dollars as seed money to attract other investors.
“Puzzle Place,” a daily series that premiered on PBS this month in an effort to promote racial harmony and self-esteem among preschoolers, would not exist without federal funding because it was CPB that commissioned the project, said William Kobin, president of KCET, which is producing the series with Lancit Media.
“Without that ($4.5-million CPB) grant, we wouldn’t have been able to go to Southern California Edison for (another) $3.5 million,” Kobin says. “Though federal money is only 14% of all the money in public television, it is absolutely critical to enabling us to leverage four to five times more money.”
Republican lawmakers fearful of angering constituents who enjoy public broadcasting insist that the most popular shows will survive without federal support--if the stations stop giving away the store by failing to take a cut of the millions earned on licensed merchandise by producers of “Barney and Friends” and other popular shows. Critics also point to the video earnings of producers such as Bill Moyers and Ken Burns, only a fraction of which flows back to public broadcasting coffers.
But CPB officials argue that their agency cannot demand a share of those revenues greater than its original investment. “Our claim is only on CPB’s share of the show, which is typically a very small part of the overall production budget,” says CPB spokesman Michael J. Schoenfeld. “The people who produce these programs take the risk.”
Moyers’ shows typically are fully funded by outside sources, officials say, and PBS merely pays a fee to broadcast them. The creators of “Barney and Friends,” they add, made the initial investment in the show and had an underground hit on their hands before they brought it to PBS.
Even so, CPB officials are eager to show they are not naive. They are renegotiating the “Barney” contract, obligating the dinosaur’s creators to fully reimburse PBS for its outlays on the show. And last week, the CPB board declared its intention to claim in future agreements “an appropriate share of ancillary income.”
That’s not enough to satisfy critics, who say that airing shows like “Barney and Friends” amounts to indirect advertising, so public broadcasting should share in the profits. These critics also note that, despite its name, PBS already airs commercials in the form of “enhanced underwriting” credits extolling the virtues of major contributors in spots that run before and after a program.
Still, the numbers that many of these critics throw out in suggesting that ancillary income could fill a $285-million federal funding gap are wildly exaggerated. Pressler continually refers to the $1 billion a year that “Barney” grosses and $800 million brought in by “Sesame Street.” In fact, independent industry analysts say that “Barney” merchandise grossed about $500 million in 1993--but most of that was eaten up by cuts to toy manufacturers, department stores and the like. “Barney’s” producers pocketed an estimated $84 million, according to Forbes magazine.
“Barney” is, in industry parlance, a fad, and that fad is fading fast. One Wall Street analyst estimated that gross revenues fell to about $200 million last year, with only about $20 million going to the producers.
“Sesame Street” products--known as “evergreen” for their lasting popularity--have grossed as much as $750 million in a year. CPB officials say the nonprofit Children’s Television Workshop plows the $20 million it earns from those licenses back into the show, which does not receive direct federal funds (although critics have highlighted a $600,000 salary made by the CTW executive who used to be in charge of those licenses).
Even when revenues from licensing Lamb Chop dolls and the like are factored in, Shari Lewis says, her Canadian partners have not turned a profit on her four-year-old series.
Station managers say it is unrealistic to expect them to squeeze more contributions out of corporations, whose funding for public TV is on the wane, or viewers, who would rather change channels than watch more fund-raising drives that insiders cynically label “beg-a-thons.”
“To me it is ill-informed at best, disingenuous at worst, to say you support Big Bird and public TV but let someone else pay,” says Raymond K.K. Ho, president of Maryland Public Television. “Who’s the someone else?”
It’s difficult to gauge actual voter support for funding public broadcasting. A CNN/USA Today poll this month showed a majority of those surveyed support continued funding. But when Los Angeles Times pollsters at about the same time asked whether they’d support cuts in public broadcasting “in order to reduce the federal deficit,” a bipartisan 63% answered yes.
Even before Congress has decided the fate of the system, Pressler is busily shopping it to private buyers. He’s drawn some interest from the Eastern phone company, Bell Atlantic, and from Colorado-based Jones InterCable.
CPB doesn’t own any broadcast licenses or programming, so it’s unlikely that this agency will be a candidate for a takeover. But Bell Atlantic spokesman Eric Rabe says that his company sees potential profits in becoming a business partner in public TV programming. Ken Burns’ “Baseball” series, for example, could find a broader audience--and bring in more revenues--if a company such as his offered episodes on pay-per-view, Rabe says.
Under a different regulatory arrangement--which could emerge with the advent of high-definition TV--public TV stations also might provide an outside buyer such as Bell Atlantic with a lucrative entree into major media markets where there are no more frequencies left, industry officials say.
Public broadcast officials, meanwhile, reject calls for privatizing their system. “Will the American people be happy with the transmogrification of nonprofit, non-commercial educational television into just another TV channel,” asks Duggan, “driven by ratings, the lowest denominator of public taste and appetites of advertisers?”
Prompted by editorials on their local stations, the public broadcasting audience has inundated Capitol Hill with calls and letters. Despite this display of support, the writing is on the wall. An appropriations bill cutting already-allocated dollars to CPB and a wide variety of federal programs is expected to go to the House floor for a vote next month. And in the Senate, even some of public broadcasting’s Republican supporters are saying CPB will have to face cuts, just like other programs.
Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas), a close ally of Gingrich, is a longtime fan of public broadcasting. He listens to “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered” on the radio. He makes public pitches during fund-raising drives. Right now, however, he is focused on balancing the federal budget.
Federal subsidies for his favorite shows “are a wonderful luxury if there’s a massive government surplus,” Dreier says. “But we have some tough decisions that have to be made about our priorities.”
Times researcher Caleb Gessesse contributed to this story.
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Where Things Stand
IN THE HOUSE, where money bills originate, Republican leaders of the Appropriations Committee talk about rescinding or sharply cutting funds that the 1994 Congress already had appropriated through fiscal year 1997. Details remain in flux. A markup on an appropriations bill is expected in mid-February.
IN THE SENATE, attention is focused on legislation that Larry Pressler (R-S.D.), chairman of the Commerce Committee, says he will introduce after hearings, probably in mid-February. An aide says the legislative details will be influenced by the actions of budget-cutters in both houses. No hearings are planned by the Appropriations subcommittee on public broadcasting, although written testimony is being taken for the record.
A number of wrinkles to legislation continue to surface, including a plan to weigh federal funding toward rural stations and a proposal to expand tax deductions available to public broadcasting contributors during a transition to a private system.
Any differences between House and Senate bills must be ironed out in a legislative conference. The final bill must pass both houses and be signed by the President. However, Clinton has made clear that he opposes any move to gut funding. Cuts included in a broad appropriations bill--covering everything from labor to health and human services--would be difficult to veto.
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