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The Nation

Nomination on Hold for Public Broadcasting Post

TV producer Warren Bell's conservative views raise concerns over his support for the agency.

September 21, 2006|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Television sitcom producer Warren Bell's appointment to the board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting appears in jeopardy after the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday abruptly pulled him from a nomination hearing scheduled for today.

A spokesman for Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, the committee chairman, said Bell was removed from the agenda because several senators on the panel had concerns about his nomination. Hearings for two other CPB nominees -- former Arkansas Sen. David H. Pryor and Chris Boskin, a board member of San Francisco's public broadcasting TV station KQED -- are still going forward today.

Bell, executive producer and show-runner of ABC's "According to Jim," was tapped by President Bush in June to serve on the board of the private, nonprofit corporation that distributes federal funds to local public television and radio stations.

The selection of the outspoken conservative disquieted many public broadcasting officials, who were troubled by partisan comments Bell has posted on the website of the conservative National Review magazine. His sharp opinions caused some broadcasters to fear that Bell would rekindle the fierce political debate that engulfed the corporation last year under the leadership of former Chairman Kenneth Y. Tomlinson.

Bell -- who described himself in a May 2005 column as "thoroughly conservative in ways that strike horror into the hearts of my Hollywood colleagues" -- said in an interview in July that he would set aside his politics as a CPB board member.

"My intent for my service with CPB is to ensure a strong, healthy, vibrant public broadcasting system for everyone to be proud of," he said.

The White House said Wednesday that Bush had not withdrawn Bell's name.

"President Bush continues to support his nomination," said Emily Lawrimore, a White House spokeswoman.

But committee sources said it remained unclear whether Bell's hearing would be rescheduled or whether the panel would ask Bush to submit someone else.

"This is an indication that a critical mass of the Senate Commerce Committee, including the leadership, shares with us some pretty serious reservations about the credentials of Mr. Bell," said John Lawson, president of the Assn. of Public Television Stations.

Bell said he had no comment on the committee's move.

The panel's wariness about his nomination underscores the desire among many lawmakers to avoid the politicization that occurred during Tomlinson's tenure, when his efforts to promote more conservatives within public broadcasting stirred controversy. He resigned after an internal investigation found that he had broken federal law.

In recent days, the debate over Bell's nomination intensified as former and current colleagues of the veteran producer came forward with conflicting accounts of his philosophy about public broadcasting.

In a letter sent Tuesday to the committee's ranking members, a married writing-and-producing team that worked with Bell for two years on "According to Jim" stated that they often heard him say that federal money should not be "wasted" on programs like public broadcasting.

Jeffrey B. Hodes and Nastaran Dibai said the topic came up during political discussions that frequently arose in the show's Studio City production offices. They served as executive producers on the ABC comedy before leaving in 2005.

At one point, "We said to him, 'How would you change CPB?' " Hodes said in an interview. "He said, 'I would dismantle it.' "

Another former writer on "According to Jim," who declined to be named out of fear his comments could jeopardize his employment in the industry, said he also heard Bell make a similar remark.

Bell rejected their accounts.

"I wholeheartedly support federal funding for public broadcasting, and I always have," he wrote in an e-mail Wednesday.

Many of his staff have come forward to back him.

Ron Hart, an executive producer on "According to Jim" who has worked with Bell for three years, said he never heard him express a desire to eliminate funding for public broadcasting.

"He was worried people were going to go after him because there's a perception that conservatives want to get rid of it, but he didn't have that opinion," said Hart, who described himself as liberal.

In addition, 16 current and former colleagues of Bell voiced support for his nomination in a letter to the committee's ranking members, stating that while many of them did not share his political views, they believed he would be good for CPB.

"He's a smart, intelligent, creative guy," said Chris Nowak, a writer on "According to Jim" who drafted the letter. While Bell is his boss, he said he was supporting him on his own volition.

All of Bell's colleagues agreed that he was vocal about his conservative politics, an outlook that made him stand out among the show's largely liberal staff. Political subjects spark banter and debate in the writing room, but "Warren is a reasonable dude," said Nowak, adding that he shared some of Bell's viewpoints.

However, Bell's contributions to the National Review Online -- including a piece in which he said he would hug House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), except "that sort of thing leaves a stain" -- disturbed public broadcasting officials. (Bell has said that the comment was a joke.)

Some broadcasters also questioned Bell's credentials for the post. While he has worked for 17 years on sitcoms such as "Life's Work," "Ellen" and "Coach," he does not have any public broadcasting experience.

Bell said in July that he was surprised by the nomination, but added that he viewed it as an opportunity use his expertise in scripted programming to help PBS develop a stronger schedule.

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matea.gold@latimes.com

Times staff writer Jim Puzzanghera in Washington contributed to this report.

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