Pulling the Rug Out

Kenneth Tomlinson, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s chair, has deservedly taken plenty of heat over the last several months for his nakedly partisan attempts to rewire the nation’s public broadcasting system.

In some respects, the fight over the alleged ideological bent of public broadcasting has partially obscured the critical issue of funding, as Tomlinson has become the poster boy for all that afflicts publicly funded programming. But, gentle reader, the public broadcasting system faces bigger problems than just Tomlinson’s ham-handed attempts to steer PBS and NPR rightward. As you’ll likely recall, a while back the House Appropriations Committee raised a public outcry by voting to cut almost $200 million in funding for the CPB, but last Thursday, the House, by a vote of 284 to 140, restored $100 million of that.

For the record, the CPB received about $400 million in federal money for 2005, which, under the House Appropriations Committee’s original cut, would have been reduced to about $200 million. The restoration of part of the funding reduces the cut from about 50 percent to about 25 percent — and it’s this remaining 25 percent about which precious little has been written.

PBS president Pat Mitchell was subdued in her reaction to the partial restoration, calling the vote to restore the $100 million “a huge moral victory for public broadcasting.” LA Weekly’s Doug Ireland wasn’t so sure, however, writing, “last Thursday’s moral victory for public broadcasting may turn out to have been a Pyrrhic one.”

What he means, in part, is that while the restored $100 million going to programs funding original journalism on PBS stations is great news, the budget cuts that remain in place imperil the future of PBS more than many have been willing to admit.

Of the roughly $112 million that is still slated to be cut by Congress, about $79 million was earmarked for PBS to fund a satellite interconnection program that sends content to local stations. This program is also charged with overseeing public TV stations’ federally mandated conversion to digital transmission — an issue Congress is currently debating. Congress has decreed that all TV stations convert their signals from analog to digital by 2007, after which the government will auction off the analog signal, with a small portion of the proceeds going to the public TV trust fund. But without the money to do so (the House is saying that PBS should fund the initiative itself), the modernization of PBS’s infrastructure will suffer, although to what extent it’s hard to say. The budget also calls for the $10 million “Rural Digital” program to be cut completely. The program, which provides grants for areas too poor to raise money for their digital transition, will cripple public broadcasting in these areas.

In the initial euphoria over the restoration of part of CPB’s funding, many PBS supporters forgot that the very programs they claimed to be fighting for — non-commercial children’s educational programming — are still very much on the chopping block. One program that remains cut is the $23 million “Ready To Read, Ready To Learn” program, a preschool partnership with the Department of Education which helps finance programs such as “Sesame Street,” “Reading Rainbow” and “Postcards from Buster.” (“Buster,” you will recall, became a target of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings a few months back when it did the unthinkable: It sent its cartoon bunny “Buster” to visit a Vermont family headed by a lesbian couple. The episode was eventually pulled.)

So, while it’s great that PBS will continue to fund original journalism (although Tomlinson’s quest to weed out “liberal bias” is decidedly less so), one of PBS’s main missions — children’s educational programming — is quietly being cut from the lineup. The Federal Communications Commission’s chairman Kevin Martin, along with several Congressmen, have recently floated the idea of requiring national broadcasters to include a “family hour” in their schedules, but it seems that lawmakers on Capitol Hill are less interested in family-friendly programming than their press releases may suggest.

And for you Tomlinson watchers, mark your calendars for July 11, when he is set to testify before the Senate Appropriations Committee about these funding cuts. Thus far he hasn’t been seen shedding too many tears over the proposed cuts, so his performance should be interesting.

Paul McLeary

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.