House looks at public television funding

Nov 19, 2001  •  Post A Comment

To understand why a House panel is investigating how the Corporation for Public Broadcasting distributes money to public television stations, one need look no further than UNC-TV, North Carolina’s public TV network.
This past summer, officials with the statewide network contacted Rep. Richard Burr, R-N.C., a member of the influential House Commerce Committee, to express concern that UNC-TV is not receiving its fair share of CPB funds.
The network’s gripe: It is paying far more in annual PBS dues, which help finance nationwide programming aired by member stations, than it is receiving in annual CPB grants, which help stations pay for their operations.
Under CPB’s current formula, large producing stations, with costly programming projects, and small stations, with fewer viewers to hit up for contributions, receive a disproportionately higher percentage of funds.
But midsize statewide networks such as UNC-TV, a single licensee serving 11 communities, and relatively large stations that don’t produce programming think CPB is shortchanging them.
“We end up getting what we regard as penalized for our efficiency,” UNC-TV spokesman Steve Volstad said. “We don’t get the benefit that North Carolina would get if there were 11 licensees instead of one statewide network.”
Rep. Burr relayed his concerns to Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., House Commerce Committee chairman, who asked PBS and CPB to submit data on how the nonprofit corporation distributes funds, which come from the federal government. The data showed that this year about 30 public TV stations out of 350 received less money from CPB than they paid to PBS. Two years ago, 60 stations came up short.
Those findings triggered plans for a hearing before the House subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet, headed by Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., but it was postponed due to the recent anthrax scare.
The lawmakers have asked CPB to revise its funding formula, and CPB is cooperating. If the lawmakers are satisfied, the hearing will be scrapped.
Under CPB’s proposed changes, public TV stations serving multiple communities would receive larger grants. UNC-TV would recoup about $300,000 each year if CPB approves the changes. This year it’s paying $730,000 more in PBS dues than it is getting from CPB.
Modifying the formula, however, means that other stations may have to relinquish some funding, particularly if the government reduces its appropriations to CPB. That means stations may be grumbling for years to come.
“We are recutting a [fixed] pie,” said Andy Russell, senior VP, media, at CPB.