NEW YORK — When the Corp. for Public Broadcasting announced in the spring the launch of an ambitious program aimed at expanding middle- and high-school students' knowledge of U.S. history and civics, it seemed to fit squarely with its traditional public service mission.
But an emphasis by corporation officials on how corporate investors could profit from the project has provoked controversy about the role commercial interests will play in the initiative and hints at new areas of conflict in public broadcasting's reliance on private-sector support.
The CPB -- a private, nonprofit corporation that distributes federal funds to public broadcasters -- plans to dole out $20 million in grants over the next three years as part of its American History and Civics Initiative. The money will go to projects that use websites, video games, podcasts and other new media to teach students about history and politics.
To get high-tech companies to participate in the initiative, CPB officials have urged producers to stress the profit to be made as schools across the country are exposed to their products. At briefings about the project, a CPB consultant suggested telling corporations that public television will be "a Trojan horse" to gain them entree into schools, according to attendees.
That idea has alarmed some producers, who fear the project represents a commercialization of public broadcasting.
"It's a radical departure from what the mission of CPB and public television is," said Deborah Kaufman, a Berkeley-based independent producer, who attended a briefing in New York for potential grant applicants in late May. "It's like a product plan for high-tech companies, which is inappropriate."
But supporters -- including some of the larger PBS stations that produce the bulk of public television programming -- view the project as a savvy way to broaden financial support for the system.
"With long-term funding for public broadcasting so uncertain, it's a really good move for us to be thinking about other business models to augment what we have," said Richard Winefield, vice president of interactive and educational services at San Francisco's KQED, which is applying for a grant. "I think we can do good and do well at the same time."
Ronald Thorpe, director of education at Thirteen/WNET in New York, agreed, calling the approach "good common sense."
The competing viewpoints come at a time when lawmakers have scrutinized the value of spending taxpayer dollars on public television and radio. While the system appears poised to escape the deep cuts proposed by House Republicans in the spring, the threat of a reduction in federal funding triggered anxiety about public broadcasting's financial stability.
Turning to corporations for funding is not new. Private-sector companies often underwrite individual PBS programs and frequently contribute directly to local stations. In 2003 -- the most recent year for which data are available -- businesses gave more than $351 million to public television and radio, 15% of the total revenue in the system.
But as corporations have shifted from passive donors to full-fledged partners in programming initiatives, public broadcasting advocates have grown increasingly nervous about commercialization of the system. When PBS and Sesame Workshop announced in April that they had joined with Comcast to create an advertiser-supported digital channel of popular children's programming, critics bemoaned the deal as a sellout.
CPB officials said their pursuit of commercial investment in the history initiative is simply an attempt to leverage federal funds, adding that corporate participation could sustain the project long after the three years of public support have run out.
"The key thing for us, as is always the case, is whether the project fulfills the mission of public television, is in the public interest and actually helps educate kids," said Michael Pack, CPB's senior vice president for television programming.
"I think as long as it does that, the fact that there might be a commercial entity involved that might be making a profit is not a bad thing. I don't see it having a negative impact."
To teach history
The initiative has a lofty aim: to measurably improve what students across the country know about the U.S.' history and political system. Although projects must include a television component, CPB officials have advised producers to develop their content primarily for interactive technologies such as websites.
To receive one of the dozen initial grants expected to be offered next year, producers have been urged to partner with a technology company that will not only develop a new-media application for the content, but invest its own money in the project.