Ken Burns speaking at the July 13 hearing

Ken Burns charmed the senators with florid testimony and baseball history at the July 13 hearing.

After vote of confidence, CPB bill may just wait

Originally published in Current, July 26, 2004
By Jeremy Egner

The Senate Commerce Committee approved a bill July 22 to reauthorize federal aid to public broadcasting for fiscal years 2007 to 2011. CPB's last reauthorization, passed in 1992, ran out in 1996.

S. 2645, introduced by committee Chairman Sen. John McCain on July 13, calls for slightly raised CPB appropriation levels and includes funding for digital conversion, new radio and TV interconnection systems and Public Telecommunications Facilities Program grants.

CPB President Kathleen Cox said the bill's advance signified recognition of "the public good that local public broadcasters do everyday." But it may amount to little more than a vote of confidence this session. Congress is in recess through Labor Day, and the House has shown no interest in taking up the issue before the target adjournment date of Oct. 1.

Pubcasters applauded the bill's digital, interconnection and PTFP funding levels but had hoped for higher authorization figures — ceilings are typically much higher than the eventual appropriations. APTS also hoped to double the number of station reps on the CPB Board to four seats out of the total of nine.

Bill amendments designed to grant pubcasters' wishes were to be proposed during the committee's July 22 markup, but the session ended abruptly when Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) invoked the routinely waived "two-hour rule" to block a vote on an unrelated issue. The rule bars committees from meeting for more than two hours past the time that the Senate begins its daily session.

The sudden adjournment means that the CPB bill will head to the floor as introduced. Any amendments probably will have to wait for a general Senate vote in September at the earliest.

The bill would set annual funding ceilings at the following levels:

The numbers were close to recent appropriations of $390 million for fiscal year 2005 and $400 million for 2006 — too close for public broadcasters. In a statement, PBS President Pat Mitchell said the current levels will "make it impossible for PBS and public television stations to continue the good work" that committee members praised during a July 13 hearing. Sources say a McCain-sponsored "manager's amendment" proposed levels starting at $428 million in 2007 and increasing by roughly 7 percent annually.

Notable provisions in McCain's legislation:

[Text of the bill]

McCain has trumpeted the bill's goal to boost local programming — he cited an April 2004 General Accounting Office report in which 79 percent of polled stations said they didn't air enough local content. The bill, however, simply says stations may use their Community Service Grants "especially" for local programming, which they already are free to do.

Steve Bass, president of Nashville Public Television, said that while he can't visualize how the language will change operations, he's glad to see localism encouraged in writing. "It's a good recognition of how the tone and approach at CPB has changed to see local as the center," he said.

McCain pinned his hopes for the bill's passage on his belief that it's not controversial — a claim not contradicted during the committee hearing he held before introducing S. 2645. Predictable questions surrounding balance issues and the GAO's criticism of the Television Future Fund arose — Cox said the corporation is ending the Radio Future Fund program this fiscal year (interview, page B6).

The hearing's overall vibe was genial, however, with senators heaping praise on doc filmmaker Ken Burns' eloquent testimony. Even pubcasting critic Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who was rumored to be developing a balance amendment that never materialized, praised pubcasters for "filling a vital niche" and said that "progress has been made" in addressing the medium's perceived political bias.

None of that may matter this session, though. Staffers say Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees CPB, has not indicated inside or outside the committee that he would move to reauthorize CPB this session. Colin Crowell, legislative assistant to Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), a ranking member of the House committee's Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, was skeptical that a bill would pass before Oct. 1.

"We have not reauthorized CPB since the Democrats have been in control," he said. "There's no evidence that that will change" this session.

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Text of the reauthorization bill.

Testimony at the reauthorization hearing.

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