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Public Broadcasters Face 'the Fight of Our Lives'

June 23, 2005|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — On the eve of a vote crucial to its financial health, the public television system is being buffeted by political and economic forces that have pushed it into a situation many say is one of the most precarious in its 38-year history.

The House of Representatives is considering a measure today that would nearly halve federal funding for public television -- a move that broadcasters predict would force the closure of small, rural stations and curtail production money for programming.

At the same time, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the private agency that distributes federal funds, is embroiled in a highly unusual partisan struggle involving allegations of secret contracts with Republican lobbyists and a consultant who graded former "Now" host Bill Moyers on political bias. Meanwhile, PBS faces increased competition from the expanding world of cable, which offers the very history, arts and children's programs that were once its sole domain. And its own prime-time audience, at an average age of 61, is nearing retirement.

The result is a period of high anxiety that rivals previous brawls over PBS, including then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich's effort to eliminate all federal funding for public broadcasting in 1995.

"In my opinion, this is probably the most tumultuous time that we have had," said David Hosley, general manager of KVIE, Sacramento's public television station, who has worked in the field for 18 years. "This is much more serious, much more divisive, and I'm fearful that it may be more successful in harming America's public broadcasting system."

The measure before the House today would strip more than $200 million, including money for Ready to Learn, an initiative that helps finance children's shows such as "Reading Rainbow."

Republican supporters say the cuts -- part of a large package of reductions in the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education appropriations bill -- were necessary to help overcome a $1.6-billion shortfall.

"Choices are easy when dollars are plentiful, but that was not the case this year," Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), chairman of the subcommittee that approved the cuts, said in a statement.

But broadcasting officials hope they can head off the measure, either through a bipartisan amendment expected to be offered today that would restore $100 million to the CPB budget or later in the summer, when the Senate is expected to take up the measure.

As they lobby lawmakers to preserve their money, a partisan battle has overtaken the nonprofit corporation charged with distributing the federal funds to PBS, National Public Radio and local television and radio stations. At its center is Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, the Republican chairman of the board, who has sought to stamp out what he sees as a liberal bias.

The confluence of events has local station officials deeply concerned and fretting that the system is being torn apart by partisanship when it needs unity.

"There definitely has been a period of demoralization," said John Lawson, president of the Assn. of Public Television Stations. "I think the actions of Ken Tomlinson have been quite damaging. The controversy around them has hurt us in the eyes of the public and it has been a huge distraction."

Tomlinson, former editor of Reader's Digest, has maintained that he is seeking only to bring more balance to public broadcasting, thereby expanding its viewership and strengthening it in the process.

Paradoxically, the upheaval has galvanized the usually sedate world of public television and given local radio stations additional ammunition in their fundraising appeals.

Marshaled by spots on their local stations, people have flooded their local congressional offices with phone calls protesting the cuts. MoveOn.org gathered more than 1 million signatures in a week from opponents of the measure. And members of the CPB board said they had received thousands of e-mails from viewers weighing in on Tomlinson's actions.

"The positive in all of this is it has provoked a public debate about public television, which I think is a healthy thing," said Paula Kerger, chief operating officer of Thirteen/WNET in New York.

The struggles over public television's finances and politics come amid continuing nervousness about what can be shown on the public airwaves.

Earlier this year, PBS President Pat Mitchell declined to distribute an episode of the children's program "Postcards From Buster" that featured a family with two lesbian moms, a show that came under criticism from Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. Weeks later, PBS sent member stations an edited version of a "Frontline" documentary about U.S. troops in Iraq that cut out the profanity used by soldiers.

"Public television should be doing cutting-edge and daring things, and unfortunately we haven't done a lot of that lately," said Bill Reed, president of KCPT in Kansas City, Mo. "I think we've gotten a lot more cautious."

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