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New public TV platform asks Congress to stop requiring CPB funding of ITVS

Originally published in Current, April 28, 1997
By Karen Everhart Bedford

Public television's opening legislative proposal for the new Congress contains a little-noticed provision to drop the requirement that CPB fund the Independent Television Service.

Following that mandate from past Democrat-controlled Congresses, CPB is giving $7.6 million this year to ITVS, a nonprofit largely controlled by independent producers, which backs indie programs for public TV.

No one claims authorship of the provision, which was added to the consensus proposal drafted by APTS's legislative advisory group and presented to public TV station managers this month. A brief mention appears in the last paragraph of a three-page document, in a list of other proposed changes to CPB statutory requirements, such as eliminating mandates for community advisory boards and various reports to Congress.

ITVS Executive Director James Yee, who was not aware of the APTS proposal until contacted by Current, has adopted a wait-and-see approach in responding to it. "We understand that APTS has utilized dated material as a reference point for system-wide discussion," said Yee in a statement last week. "It is also our understanding that the Congress's new leadership intends to put forward their own new perspective and language."

Yee said that ITVS is engaged in a "conversation to enhance and improve our future working relationship" with CPB. "There has been no effort from any party to retreat from that."

APTS's consensus on proposed legislation, largely agreed among stations more than a year ago, represented an achievement for public TV stations--they reached a compromise on sharply divisive issues under pressure from Rep. Jack Fields, then chairman of the House telecom subcommittee.

The package, like the unsuccessful bill introduced by Fields, still calls for establishment of a public broadcasting trust fund, with details on governance and financing to be resolved by a commission created by the legislation. Also remaining in the package are revenue-generating proposals to relax minor underwriting rules and to permit the sale or commercial operation of overlap or duopoly stations.
But it calls for a more generous three-year reauthorization for CPB, providing $325 million for fiscal 2000, with increases for the following two years.

In addition, APTS is seeking federal matching grants to help all public TV stations convert to digital transmission, with an emphasis on maintaining public TV's nearly universal service to the population. Pubcasters were alerting their congresspeople last month that the field's DTV conversion costs may total $1.1 billion.

It's doubtful, however, that a real consensus exists on ITVS's future. Three members of the APTS advisory group expressed differing views on the subject, and did not recall specifically discussing ITVS funding or other proposed statutory changes during consensus talks. "Those issues came out of CPB's agenda," said Ted Krichels, g.m. of KBDI, Denver. "I don't remember them being actively discussed."

"That's CPB's part of the proposal," said David Brugger, president of APTS. The APTS advisory panel didn't discuss it because it was part of a compromise that APTS reached with CPB and other major organizations on a legislative proposal for the new Congress. The proposal adopts most of the elements of last year's Fields bill.

"We're talking about the beginning of a proposal that picks up from where we left off," added Brugger. "It's not necessarily what the new leadership will want, but we have to start somewhere. Rather than start off fighting, we start off where we last agreed."

CPB denied requesting that the ITVS language be included in the Fields bill, or in the consensus proposal. "That dog won't hunt," said spokeswoman Jeannie Bunton.

CPB President Richard Carlson did, however, ask Congress to reexamine a list of mandates it had imposed on CPB over the years, including the ITVS funding, in his September 1995 testimony before the House telecom subcommittee.

"Each time Congress gave us a new challenge or duty it provided increased funding as well," said Carlson, in written testimony. "But if funding is to be cut, many of these mandates should be eliminated as well."

"In that testimony and, and at no time since, has CPB singled out any particular mandate," said Bunton.
But when ITVS funding came up last year during a House appropriations hearing, Carlson did suggest that the costs of running ITVS could be better spent. "We have always felt there was some waste in having a second organization," he said, responding to questioning.

Bunton said CPB views APTS's legislative proposal as a "good start," and agrees with its "broad goals," such as proposals to reauthorize CPB, create a trust fund, and modify PTFP to assist with the field's digital conversion. However, Bunton said, CPB is still considering its "finer specifics."

"The missing piece here is determining Congress's will," Bunton added. "We still have to get a better picture of what the Hill wants. It could result in changing things."

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