Monday, February 4, 2008

Treading Water: The Annual Fight over Funding for Public Broadcasting has Started

I know some of you were waiting for this annual event, which has occurred in our nation's capitol for the last 27 years. Every year since 1981 we've seen the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) Tango between Congress and the Executive Branch. It started with Reagan Budget Director David Stockman (who proposed to eliminate all funding for CPB), and it continues today with the latest from the Bush Administration.

The President has submitted his Fiscal Year 2009 budget to Congress, recommending the following for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB):
  1. a $200 million rescission from the $400 million already appropriated by Congress for FY 2009;
  2. a $220 million rescission from the $400 million already appropriated by Congress for FY 2010;
  3. no advance appropriation for FY 2011; and
  4. no additional funding in FY 2009 for public television and radio digital conversion or upgrades to the Public Radio Satellite System (although CPB would be permitted to use a portion of its FY 2009 regular appropriation for these purposes).
If enacted, these cuts would represent a 56% reduction in funding from CPB’s FY 2008 levels, and would be felt in all CPB programs, beginning with the station Community Service Grants. The proposal also comes as CPB was preparing a request for supplemental funding of $483 Million to help pay for digital television conversion for public television stations.

*See a response from the CPB to the President's 2009 Budget here.

Before you get really upset, don't. It's part of the dance we see each year since Congress abandoned the idea of insulation for CPB funding. Insulation was a concept briefly championed by members of Congress following the impeachment of Richard Nixon, who hated public broadcasting and tried in his own manipulative ways to silence the beast while it was still in its infancy (see here).

By the time Ronald Reagan was sworn in, the concept of insulating funds for three to five years beyond the current budget period for CPB was toast. It would have insured that no meddling would take place with CPB decisions and programming content (to keep the CPB system of public television and radio stations insulated from political pressure). The Public Broadcasting system could continue to be bold in programming choices, and continue to serve under-served audiences that commercial radio and television ignores.

What we have instead of insulation is a short circuit each year, as Congress and the President fight over funding levels for CPB. Year to year, hand-to-mouth funding means we continue to have status quo public radio and television. So at least we have drive time public radio news programs and weekend radio favorites. It is better than no funding at all. But it means that ongoing innovation and being able to adapt to new audiences and new public interests is severely compromised.

Ultimately, that is why the Bush team came up with their current proposal. They know that when David Stockman tried to eliminate funding in 1981, public outcry kept it from happening. They also know that the annual budget anxiety keeps Public Broadcasting on a short leash. And it steers too many in the public radio system into what can best be described as the audience building extremist camp, where process and heavily-researched or refined programming usually trumps innovation and substance.

We can argue about news content; whether NPR is too liberal or too complacent, but perhaps the best gauge of the health of the system comes when looking at something other than news programming. Let's look briefly at the arts on public radio for a moment. The last time public radio carried a successful series of theatre programming came in that fateful year of 1981 when the radio production of Star Wars from KUSC, Los Angeles was already produced. It was successfully carried by hundreds of public radio stations.

That marvelous production was complimented that year when many public radio stations across the land also carried the BBC series The Hitch Hikers Guide To The Galaxy, which dwarfs the television production of same. Nothing since 1981 comes close in the number of stations that carried such programming, and nothing approaches the positive public response to such programs. It's no accident that this kind of programming ceased after 1981, due to uncertain funding levels from year to year. Long term planning is out the window. As a result, we have a national system that is treading water--at best.

So, if you are a public radio or television devotee, concerned about losing your news fix, don't worry about the new volley of budgetary insults from the White House. Congress will counter with funding levels more to your liking, and they will pass Continuing Resolution amendments, probably long enough to hold current funding levels until a new occupant is in the oval office. Ultimately, the future of the system rests with the results of this year's election, not with the current whims of a lame duck. But ask yourself, how long can this system continue to hobble along? And will it ever live up to its potential?

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