Emergency infusion: Rx for fiscal hemorrhage

By Dru Sefton

Public television is asking Congress for a $211 million supplemental appropriation for fiscal year 2010 on top of the usual CPB funding, presenting it as disaster relief rather than another bailout.

“This is a very different situation from the banks. We have no bad assets on our books,” said Larry Sidman, new president of the Association of Public Television Stations, during the group’s annual Capitol Hill Day lobbying event last week. “This is not a bailout,” he said, “but an emergency infusion of funding to ensure we maintain the unique quality of our service and enhance our mission.”

To demonstrate that an emergency is at hand, APTS pointed to its recent survey of 174 stations, to which 83 responded, citing drops in funding across the board (separate story).

In addition, APTS sent station managers, lay leaders and other pubTV insiders to Capitol Hill last week to make the initial pitch for a big increase in CPB’s advance appropriation for fiscal 2012.

Here’s the progression of adopted and requested CPB outlays, which Congress approves under the usual policy of appropriating the field’s major chunk of federal aid two years in advance:

  • $393 million laid out in fiscal 2008, which concluded Sept. 30;
  • $400 million already appropriated for this year, but not nailed down until Congress belatedly adopts its fiscal 2009 budget this spring;
  • $420 million appropriated for fiscal 2010, already set aside long before President Barack Obama kicks off his first appropriations round with the release of a proposed budget, probably sometime later this month (the $211 million sum would supplement this request);
  • $430 million proposed by pubcasters for fiscal 2011, which is part of the pending 2009 budget; and
  • a big step up to $542 million requested this month by pubcasters for fiscal 2012, to be considered during the 2010 budget process.

At the same time, public TV is appealing for Congress to undo Bush-era cuts in equipment funding through the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program. Public TV requested $44 million for PTFP in fiscal 2010, more than double last year’s level of $18.8 million and just over its 2003 level of $43.2 million. APTS leaders noted that stations’ PTFP applications have outnumbered grants 2-to-1 between ’04 and ’08.

Important but confusing message

Sidman urged APTS members to aim for increased federal support, not maintenance. (Photo: Phil Himnicky for APTS.)

The confusing list of requests daunted even APTS Board members at their meetings.

The “important message” pubTV advocates carry to the Hill may be lost in the shuffle “if we don’t know the figures,” warned incoming lay trustee Hilma Prather, chair of Kentucky Educational Television in Lexington. “We have confusion here that will be exponential with others also asking.”

Sidman reassured his new constituents that the numbers would be “crystal clear” after the subsequent two days of meetings.

Even a clear, strong message faces an uphill battle on the Hill with the loss of moderate Republican legislators who were a vital part of the strong majority that fought major cutbacks in federal aid in 2005.

Debra Tica Sanchez, APTS v.p. for government relations, pointed out that of the 87 GOP House members who stood up for pubcasting during the crucial 1995 vote on “zeroing out” pubcasting, only 44 remain. An especially painful loss on the Senate side was Alaska Republican Ted Stevens, a longtime system champion. And Blue Dog Democrats, often skeptical of federal spending, are gaining influence, she added. But Sanchez also said that early discussions are finding Hill staffers “very receptive” to pubcasting.

Sidman sought both to empathize with and to rev up station reps. He said the economic crisis will require that they perform a lot of “heavy lifting” in pitches to Congress, but that it also offers a great opportunity.

“It is not hyperbole to state that the new administration and the new Congress are more favorably disposed to public television . . . than at any time since the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was created in 1967,” Sidman said in his debut speech Feb. 9.

However, “public television is not immune” to economic challenges, he added. “The choice is clear. We can hunker down in a bunker, passively waiting for economic revival. . . . Or we can stare the economic hard times in the eye and vow not to bow to them.”

Henry Becton, just elected as APTS Board chair, agreed. “This notion of taking advantage of an economic crisis may seem like an oxymoron,” said the vice chairman and retired president of Boston’s WGBH. “In fact, when there’s a crisis we have a chance to make changes that we otherwise can’t.”

Talk of unity, once again

Sanchez noted that many moderate GOP supporters of 2005 are no longer in Congress. (Photo: Current.)

Heads of major pubcasting organizations, sometimes referred to as the G4, repeatedly underlined their intention to present a unified message to Congress. “We cannot let daylight appear between our organizations,” said CPB President Patricia Harrison. Sidman and PBS President Paula Kerger briefly left the event to make a joint appearance on Capitol Hill.

There has been some measure of cooperation among the G4 for years, and much talk of improving upon it. Sidman said he is personally determined to make the relationship “airtight” during his presidency.

NPR’s new president, Vivian Schiller, was invited to the APTS event but couldn’t attend due to a previous engagement out of town. She is and will continue to be part of talks among the organizations, Sidman added.

Sanchez said APTS did not lobby for funds targeted specifically to public radio. “We thought it best that TV licensees are talking about what is happening with TV,” she explained. NPR will approach legislators regarding issues unique to public radio.

The APTS board’s decision to seek the recession-fighting $211 million supplemental appropriation came so recently — within the past few weeks, according to an APTS spokeswoman — that leaders had yet to determine how the money should be distributed.

“If we get these dollars, how will they be rolled out to the stations?” asked Ellis Bromberg, g.m. of Milwaukee Public Television and an APTS Board member, voicing a concern held by other station reps.

The feeling was that CPB would receive and distribute the $211 million. But Sanchez said that there is “no traditional formula” currently in place, and the CPB Board may need to determine a procedure for distributing the funds based on organizations’ needs.

Sidman followed up that he doesn’t want to “get us so enmeshed in bureaucracy over the distribution formulas that we don’t get the money out for two years. That would be catastrophic in multiple ways.”

Funding backed by APTS

Here’s what pubcasters on Capitol Hill last week were requesting from members of Congress:

  • $542 million for CPB in fiscal 2012.
  • $32 million for Ready to Learn, a program funded by a grant to CPB from the U.S. Department of Education intended to bolster reading ability among children ages 2 to 8 in low-income families. Development partners include lead grantee PBS, WGBH in Boston, WTTW in Chicago, Sesame Workshop and Out of the Blue productions.
  • $17 million for Ready to Teach, a set of digital education services to help teachers, especially those focusing on reading and math. Included is PBS TeacherLine. Overseen by PBS and local public television stations, Ready to Teach is funded by Department of Education grants.
  • $40 million for CPB Digital, its grant programs aiding stations’ ongoing digital transition. The outlay would include the proposed American Archive project, which aims to digitize and preserve past content.
  • $44 million for the Commerce Department’s Public Telecommunications Facilities Program.
  • $10 million for the Agriculture Department’s digital conversion aid for rural stations.
  • The $211 million supplemental CPB aid for next year.
Becton, Bates, Christopherson elected board leaders for APTS

Henry Becton, retired president and now vice chair of Boston’s WGBH, took office this month as board chair of the Association of Public Television Stations. He stepped up from APTS vice chair, succeeding Julie Andersen of South Dakota Public Broadcasting.

APTS member stations elected Rod Bates, g.m. of Nebraska Educational Telecommunications, as a new trustee, and the board installed him as one of its two vice chairs.

The board also elected Elizabeth Christopherson as lay vice chair. Christopherson only recently became a layperson, having left the top job at New Jersey Network to become president of the Rita Allen Foundation in Princeton.

Stations elected four new manager trustees—Bates, Ellis Bromberg of  Milwaukee Public Television, John Harris of North Dakota’s Prairie Public Broadcasting, and Jose Fajardo of WMFE in Orlando, Fla. The stations also reelected Norm Silverstein of WXXI in Rochester, N.Y., and Diane Lilly, senior v.p., government relations at Wells Fargo Co., Minneapolis.

The stations also elected new lay trustees Hilma Prather, chair of Kentucky Educational Television, and Jeffrey Stone, chair of Houston’s Association for Community Broadcasting, the fundraising affiliate of HoustonPBS and KUHF-FM.

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