Senators back DTV funding for public TV

Jul 9, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Four powerful senators plan to quietly amend a supplemental budget bill with language that provides public broadcasters with tens of millions of dollars in long-sought-after funding to aid their transition to digital.
The lawmakers, who have tried to keep the amendment under wraps to avoid arousing opposition, plan to slip it into the bill on Monday or Tuesday when it’s considered on the Senate floor.
The money couldn’t come at a more dire time for public television: Industry officials recently acknowledged that most of the nation’s public TV stations will miss the government’s May 2003 deadline for converting to digital because of a lack of funds. They’ve asked the Federal Communications Commission to relax the deadline.
Meanwhile, for the past 31/2 years, Congress has rebuffed the bulk of the industry’s requests for DTV funding, providing only a trickle of money.
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., are leading the charge to aid public broadcasters.
The language would provide the Corporation for Public Broadcasting with about $40 million in DTV funding over two years to be farmed out to noncommercial stations.
But there could be trouble ahead for public broadcasters even if the proposal is included in the Senate measure.
For starters, House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., would have to approve the funding scheme because he has jurisdiction over a counterpart budget bill that already passed the House without the authorization.
He’s generally supportive of public TV and radio but has also withheld funding when the industry has been mired in scandal.
“It’s too early to comment. There’s a lot of give and take during House and Senate negotiations,” Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson said, adding, “I’m not going to tip our hand on our strategy.”
Even with Mr. Tauzin’s approval, there could be a showdown over the provisions when the bills are eventually melded into one by a House-Senate conference. When language is in one chamber’s bill but not the other’s, it is sometimes targeted by lawmakers for removal at that time.
The senators’ proposal would authorize $20 million in DTV funding for fiscal year 2001. Congress has already appropriated the money, but the authorization would release the funds to the industry.
Meanwhile, Congress also would authorize an unspecified figure for the same purpose in fiscal 2002, possibly settling on $20 million again because the Bush administration has asked Congress to appropriate that amount.
The proposed funding falls far short of the $699 million over five years the industry has been seeking from the government. Nevertheless, it is welcome news to public broadcasters.
“We see it as a down payment that has a lot of political payoff if we can get it done,” said John Lawson, president and CEO of America’s Public Television Stations, the industry’s lobbying arm. He said it could spur lawmakers to provide additional funding to the industry.
Public stations have raised about $600 million at the state and local levels for a transition they expect to cost $1.8 billion.