PBS grandfathers sectarian shows

In a compromise with the few pubTV stations that carry religious programming, the PBS Board voted June 16 to allow them to keep their PBS membership without dropping the shows.

Member stations also can carry worship services and other clearly sectarian programs on their DTV multicast channels or other distribution platforms so long as they don’t carry the PBS name or PBS-distributed programming.

The ruling pleased the handful of pubTV stations that have longtime commitments to religious broadcasts.

The PBS Board, aiming to maintain a clear separation between public TV’s identity and religious groups, did draw a line on sectarian programs, but the new member eligibility rule is much less restrictive than what the network’s Station Services Committee proposed in February.

Stations that want to keep their membership in PBS won’t be able to add any new sectarian programs on their main channels or wherever PBS programs or the PBS name are used. The final member-eligibility rules are posted on current.org.

The February proposal, put up for review by all member stations, drew a tighter line against sectarian content on “all digital broadcast channel(s) and related media distribution platforms” that carry “PBS and/or PBS member brands.” Because the FCC requires broadcasters to announce their call letters hourly on the air, the rule could have forced a few stations owned by religious groups to choose between PBS and continuation of worship services they’ve aired for years.

The compromise resolves what may be the most difficult question raised in the board’s review of station membership rules. As part of the review, the board’s Station Services Committee dived into sticky questions about what came to be known as the Three Nons — noncommercial, nonpolitical and nonsectarian — key criteria among those that define broadcasters eligible for PBS membership. The rules had not been updated for about 15 years.

By exempting multicast channels from the nonsectarian standard, PBS avoids making problems for KOCE in Orange County, Calif., a licensee that fought a three-year legal and political battle for its broadcast channel against religious broadcaster Daystar Television. The KOCE Foundation, the station’s present nonprofit licensee, and Daystar both bid to acquire the station from its original licensee, which opted to sell it to the foundation in 2003.

Daystar objected to the outcome and launched numerous challenges in federal and state court, in the legislature and at the FCC — some of them successful. In June 2007, the new licensee bought legal peace with a settlement giving Daystar access to one of KOCE’s four DTV multicast channels. “They pay us enough to cover their portion of the power bill,” said KOCE President Mel Rogers.

The agreement also sidesteps new culture-war battles, though conservative news media were affronted anyway — FoxNews.com trumpeted “PBS to Begin Phasing Out Religious Programming From Airwaves” and Beliefnet.com commented “PBS Decision was Unwise and Unnecessary.”

In New Orleans, Ron Yager, g.m. of WLAE, which broadcasts a Catholic Mass on Sundays, said he’s “delighted” with the outcome of the PBS policy review. The Mass from the Saint Louis Cathedral “is truly great for homebound and shut-in viewers,” he said. “It’s a form of outreach we’ve been doing for 25 years.” The station was founded by a lay Catholic group in New Orleans.

But in the years since WLAE began those Sunday broadcasts, the media landscape has shifted. Many other media platforms are now available for video distribution, including online streaming. Programming competing for public TV’s limited schedule has grown, even outstripping the digital boost in its channel capacity. Church-state separation and organized religion itself have become more controversial with culture-war battles between religious conservatives and secular Americans.

In October 2007 the PBS Board asked its Station Services Committee for advice on a revamp of membership policies. The last such examination was in 1995.

Vice chairman of the committee, Peter Morrill of Idaho PTV, called it “a soup-to-nuts review of the entire policy.”

The committee’s work began in January 2008. Under committee Chair Jennifer Lawson, g.m. of WHUT in Washington, D.C., the panel received briefings from the network staff on the history of such PBS policy reviews; heard from experts on broadcast network affiliation, franchising and public service media; and pored over research on fundraising, content utilization, audience ratings in multiple-station markets and online content strategies. In February 2009 the committee presented a 17-page draft proposal to member stations.

“Were there spirited discussions? Absolutely,” Morrill said, “especially when you bring together wide range of member stations and a policy that had not been updated in 15 years. We had a lot of catching up to do.”

The first batch of changes from the review, adopted by the board in late March, redefined the terms of the skittish balance between full-member stations and the generally smaller Program Differentiation Plan (PDP) stations whose signals overlap those of the bigger stations. The PDP stations buy only a quarter of the PBS schedule (Current, April 13).

The Three Nons — especially “nonsectarian”— proved a sticking point. At least five member stations carried some form of religious broadcasting, such as a weekly Mass for shut-ins and Mormon church meetings covered by KBYU at the church-owned Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. The stations said those programs were an important public service that reflected their local viewerships.

So the Three Nons question was sent back to the system for further comment. Morrill said stations replied in letters and e-mails.

Lawson’s own station, owned by a secular school, Howard University, carried a weekly Mass that was the only remaining part of a weekly worship broadcast that once rotated among various churches in D.C.

With a PBS policy decision looming, the Washington Archdiocese this month announced it will shift the Mass to the local CW network affiliate — and start paying for the airtime. Susan Gibbons, archdiocese spokeswoman, said during the transition in July the Mass will run on both WHUT and the new channel to ensure that viewers know about the change.

In New Orleans, WLAE will keep its broadcasts from the cathedral on Jackson Square. Yager said when viewers heard their Sunday tradition might end, the station got hundreds of calls and e-mails from viewers asking how they could help keep the broadcasts. “It was very encouraging,” he added. “It told me we are making a difference. And that’s why we’re here.”

A third station that airs Catholic religious programs, diocese-owned KMBH in Harlingen, Texas, is moving them to a multicast channel. General Manager Pedro Briseño told the Brownsville Herald that he’s glad that PBS leaders “came to their senses.”

The new rules take effect immediately. PBS asked stations to report in writing to the network any sectarian programs they air as of June 16; those will be grandfathered. Stations will be asked each year to certify that information along with other membership requirements.

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