Current Online

Millions for digital TV vanish in ongoing Capitol stalemate

Originally published in Current, Oct. 2, 2000
By Stephanie Lash

Pubcasters were set to receive $10 million for the digital transition from this year's federal budget, if only Congress had passed a law authorizing the program by Sept. 30 [2000]. But as lawmakers pushed to leave Washington before the elections, that deadline came and went without legislation.

Much the same thing happened last fall to $15 million for digital conversion. And CPB as a whole hasn't been authorized since 1996.

In the meantime, CPB still receives appropriations for its existing programs, because they have been funded in previous years. Digital transition funding, however, is a new function for CPB and requires authorization. The list-swap furor of summer 1999 derailed CPB's hope of authorization last year, and political deadlock has stymied legislation. President Clinton's omnibus appropriations bill for FY 2000, signed last November, made the $10 million earmarked for digital transition contingent on authorization.

Observers say the lost millions aren't necessarily gone forever. Last year, Congress appropriated $15 million for the transition to be added to CPB funding, also subject to authorization. And when legislators failed to meet that deadline, negotiations with the White House resulted in the funding being distributed through the remaining years of the President's five-year, $450 million program for digital conversion. Pubcasting advocates hope that the same will be done with these funds. With a new administration and a possible shift of congressional control, they will continue their push after the elections.

"After the election, we could have a more sympathetic cast of characters on Capitol Hill," said David Brugger, president of APTS, to a crowd at the PBS Development Conference last week in Palm Desert, Calif.

Brugger noted that with the retirement of House Commerce Committee Chairman Thomas Bliley (R-Va.), chances are equally good that pubcasting supporter Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) or Rep. Mike Oxley (R-Ohio), who tried to cut funding this year, could succeed Bliley as chairman. And with the Democrats six seats away from House control, pubcasting friends like Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) could find themselves in power again, he said.

Brugger remained optimistic, noting that September could end with public television receiving "some better-than-ever finances." Chances are that CPB will come away with $365 million in FY 2003, the amount requested, he said, and PTFP could get as much as $50 million in FY 2001, with much of that going to DTV conversion.

"And although that [$10 million] is still contingent upon getting it authorized, at least this year there is no deadline after which we would lose the money," he said.

. To Current's home page
. Earlier news: One cause for upset in Congress — 9 percent of stations exchanged donor lists with political groups, 1999.
. Outside link: APTS web pages about funding of digital conversion.

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