Public Broadcasters Locked in a Fight for Funds
The battle over federal funding of public broadcasting is being watched closely at KCTF-TV in Waco, Tex.
The public-television station receives more than half of its operating budget from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, an organization at the center of a stormy debate on Capitol Hill over federal budget priorities.
"If federal funding is zeroed out, that would be devastating," said Sarah White, the general manager of the station. "Our board chairman has said we would go dark within months or weeks."
The Waco outlet of the Public Broadcasting Service has been an independent station for about a year, which accounts for its unusually high reliance on federal money granted through the C.P.B., Ms. White said.
If federal funding of the C.P.B. ends--the goal of some Republicans in Congress--it could spell the end in Waco of over-the-air broadcasts of PBS children's shows such as "Sesame Street" and "Barney & Friends." It could also mean the end of local projects, such as a partnership with child-care providers and a special series about parenting produced with the Waco school district, Ms. White said.
Cable-television subscribers in Waco would still be able to receive the PBS affiliate from Dallas, which is carried on the local cable system, "but only 60 percent of viewers here have cable," Ms. White pointed out.
As Congress debates whether to terminate or reduce federal appropriations to the C.P.B., which is costing taxpayers $285 million this year, the public-broadcasting community has gone into crisis mode. Some PBS stations have run messages across viewers' screens warning that the future of the show being aired is threatened and encouraging them to call or write Congress.
And more than ever before, public-broadcasting leaders are playing up the importance of educational shows and nonbroadcast partnerships with schools delivered with federal money. (See Education Week, Oct. 12, 1994.)
Public broadcasting "is devoted to education in both the very strict and conventional sense and the broad sense," Richard W. Carlson, the president of the C.P.B., said at a recent House hearing on federal funding of the corporation. Education projects "would be the first to disappear" if the C.P.B. lost its federal support, he added. Virtually all of the corporation's budget comes from federal funds.
Supporters' goal is to convince Congress that "privatizing" the C.P.B. by eliminating federal funding would create another commercial-broadcasting network that would have little incentive to keep shows with small audiences or to pay for unique education projects.
Critics of the current system, however, believe there has been too much doomsaying.
Public television and radio could survive and even thrive without an annual federal appropriation, they contend, and the close-knit public-broadcasting community is merely trying to preserve the status quo.
If funding were eliminated, "you would not notice any difference on the air," said Laurence Jarvik, the Washington director of the Los Angeles-based Center for the Study of Popular Culture and a frequent critic of public broadcasting.
"They are so overstaffed and have so many duplicate stations," he said. "It would give them an incentive to sort things out."
Key Republican leaders in Congress say that because of the federal deficit, funding of the C.P.B. must be examined with the same scrutiny as the rest of the budget.
"Nobody here wants to hurt the quality of programming that exists in public broadcasting, but we do have to [ask], for the good of those children and their children, can we afford this program?" Rep. Robert L. Livingston, R-La., the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said during a subcommittee hearing last month.
Others point to the willingness recently expressed by such private companies as the Bell Atlantic Corporation to take over some operations of public television as evidence that the private sector could replace the role of the federal government.
Critics also argue that public television should demand a bigger share of the profits when shows like "Barney" and "Shining Time Station" spawn popular products.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is an often misunderstood entity created by Congress in 1967 to distribute federal money to producers and public-television and -radio stations.
About $190 million this year will go to local stations for basic operations such as transmitting a broadcast signal. Smaller stations in rural areas rely more on these C.P.B. funds, sometimes for a third or more of their total budgets. These are the stations that could be forced off the air if federal aid is eliminated, public-broadcasting supporters say.
The C.P.B. will spend about $67 million this year on programming grants for television and radio. Many of the grants are small, accounting for only a portion of a show's total budget, but they are the critical "seed money" that producers need to approach foundations and corporations for further funding, supporters say.
One point that is often misunderstood is that the C.P.B. does not own the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio. Nor does it own any of the federally licensed stations that carry the networks' programs. C.P.B. money makes up 14 percent of the total funding of public broadcasting. The rest comes from state and local governments, foundations, corporations, colleges, and individual donors.
Both the C.P.B. and PBS, more so than public radio, are banking on their educational activities to win good will.
"We are now trying to explain our breadth of activities in education," said Carolynn Reid-Wallace, the C.P.B.'s senior vice president for education.
For example, the corporation has provided grants to help create a computerized mathematics-homework service in 12 communities. It gave a $5,000 grant to the PBS station in Redding, Calif., to get the equipment to connect the station's data services with schools.
C.P.B. grants have helped pay for a weekly education-policy discussion on National Public Radio and will create "The Education Connection," a collaborative effort by 12 public-radio stations to provide educational materials over the Internet computer network.
"Also, more than 90 percent of our television stations use our support for instructional television," said Ms. Reid-Wallace, who served as the Education Department's assistant secretary for postsecondary education under President George Bush.
She acknowledged that even without federal funds, some popular educational shows and other worthy projects might continue.
"But under what circumstances?" she asks. "We are commercial free. Youngsters can watch 'Barney' or 'Sesame Street' or 'Reading Rainbow' without someone selling them Kool-Aid."