Debate Over Renewing Public-TV Aid Raises Fears of Cuts in 'Seed Money'
WASHINGTON--A bill to reauthorize federal funding for public broadcasting has ignited a sharp legislative debate over a perceived liberal bias in programming and a lack of accountability for federal dollars, including those going to children's shows.
A Senate debate on the bill led by conservative Republicans early this month raised fears among public-TV officials about possible reductions in federal aid, or new restrictions on such money, that would undermine public broadcasting's educational mission and make it harder to raise private funds for children's shows and associated education projects.
The bill in question is a $1.1-billion, three-year reauthorization for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the private, nonprofit organization created by the Congress in 1967 to funnel federal aid into the public-broadcasting system.
The C.P.B. was created to promote the growth of public radio and television, and it receives virtually all of its funding from the federal budget. The corporation then makes grants to the Public Broadcasting Service, National Public Radio, individual member stations, and specific programming projects. The process is designed to shield public broadcasting from federal interference with editorial or programming decisions.
The federal aid that comes through the C.P.B. makes up only about 17 percent of the funding for all of public broadcasting, but the money helps attract other support, broadcasting officials say.
"Federal money is crucial to public broadcasting, because it is our seed money that brings in the other needed funds to stay on the air,'' Donald Ledwig, the president of the C.P.B., said in an interview last week. "We cannot harvest quality programs if we lose our seed money.''
The reauthorization bill has passed the House, but it was pulled from the Senate floor on March 4 after a day and a half of raucous debate.
The primary concern of conservative critics is a perceived liberal tilt in the adult-oriented PBS evening schedule of documentaries and public-affairs programs.
But beneath the overtly political objections to the system are some concerns that could have more impact on children's and educational programming.
One is the charge that public-broadcasting officials receive overly generous salaries and benefit from federal funding without being accountable for its use.
"PBS supporters claim that stations are in desperate financial condition,'' Senator Jesse Helms, Republican of North Carolina, said during the debate this month. But he cited a number of six-figure salaries he said were paid to local-station officials. One PBS station manager has a salary of "only $304,000 a year,'' Mr. Helms said.
Mr. Helms also asserted that one officer of the Children's Television Workshop, which produces "Sesame Street'' and other educational shows, received a $624,000 salary.
(A spokesman for the C.T.W. said last week that Joan Ganz Cooney, the company's recently retired founder, was paid more than $600,000 last year, but that more than half of that figure represented deferred compensation from the past 10 years.)
Senator Bob Dole of Kansas, the Senate minority leader, said that when "taxpayers are being asked to dig into their pockets during a recession for another $1.1 billion, they have a right to know how their money is being spent.''
The Republican critics are said to be planning several amendments for the reauthorization bill when it returns to the floor, including measures that would make public-broadcasting officials disclose how federal funds were spent, limit those officials' outside incomes, and encourage more balance in programming.
Democratic supporters of public broadcasting rallied to its side, with Senator Al Gore, Democrat of Tennessee, accusing the Republicans of holding "'Sesame Street' and 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood' hostage for their ideological political agenda.''
Can Cable Do the Job?
Also shaping the debate is the belief of many critics that the federal subsidy to public broadcasting has outlived its original purpose.
Representative Dick Armey, Republican of Texas, has introduced a bill that would privatize the C.P.B. by removing its federal aid.
Subsidizing public TV may have been justified in the 1960's, when the three major commercial networks dominated broadcasting, Mr. Armey argued in a recent letter to Congressional colleagues. But, with the growth of cable TV, much of what PBS airs "has become redundant,'' he said.
Laurence Jarvik, a resident scholar at the Heritage Foundation, has made many of the same points in a recent series of papers and speeches.
Mr. Jarvik also questions federal funding for such entities as the Children's Television Workshop, which makes millions of dollars each year on licensing fees from its "Sesame Street'' characters.
C.T.W. officials respond that C.P.B. grants make up less than 3 percent of the organization's 1992 budget, and that license fees help sustain "Sesame Street'' and provide funding for other new educational shows.
Mr. Ledwig of the C.P.B. and other public-broadcasting officials argue that, despite the growth of programming for children on cable channels, no network is doing as much for education as public television.
"We are not influenced by market forces,'' Mr. Ledwig said. "We can use our seed money to promote areas of national concern, such as education.''
In one such move, the C.P.B. last week announced the launch of "Project Education,'' an effort that commits public broadcasters to the drive to achieve the six national education goals. The project will take many forms, based on local station efforts that in most cities are already under way, Mr. Ledwig said.
A TV special linked to the project will air April 15 on PBS. "Listen Up!,'' a one-hour show airing at 8 P.M. Eastern time, will use "Sesame Street'' characters and celebrities to help explain the goals.