Clinton backs DTV transition subsidy

Originally published in Current, Feb. 16, 1998

By Steve Behrens

The White House this month endorsed $450 million in federal help for public broadcasting's transition to digital transmission--a huge commitment but less than the $771 million sought by the field, and a fraction of the $1.7 billion estimated cost for the changeover.

Part of the sum amounts to a redirection of the longstanding Public Telecommunications Facilities Program (PTFP).

APTS, CPB and PBS said nevertheless that they were "delighted" with the support and called it an "excellent start." However, the statement from NPR President Delano Lewis said he was "concerned" that the sum fell short of the field's request.

No one knows what difference the lower subsidy will make in the digital switchover, said APTS President David Brugger, but it may mean that some public TV stations will lack digital production gear and will serve only as "pass-through" outlets for national programs. Or it may cause fewer problems if DTV equipment costs decline rapidly.

The Administration's proposed spending was less than the APTS/CPB/PBS/NPR request because of "differences in methodology used in coming up with the estimates," an Administration official said. The amounts were based on different assumptions about the federal/local match, for instance, he said.

The $450 million amount would be laid out across five years, starting next fiscal year, and dispensed through two agencies. CPB would handle $375 million, and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration would handle $75 million--the old PTFP.

"CPB will distribute the basic equipment that every station will need to go digital," said Bernadette McGuire Rivera, director of NTIA's grant programs, while NTIA "will fund some replicable models of how stations can use this digital technology." She said that was the preliminary idea, though details of the two grant programs have not been decided yet.

The proposal gives NTIA the new mandate but doesn't give it new money, however. Indeed, the White House would reduce PTFP from $21 million to $15 million next year without relieving its responsibility for replacement of ancient station equipment or outfitting of new stations.

The funds would still aid both the digital TV transition and the similar but probably less expensive shift in radio, Rivera said.

The Digital Transition Fund for CPB would start with $50 million next year, followed by annual sums of $65 million, $90 million, $85 million and $85 million.

President Clinton's budget request to Congress also backed in advance a sizeable raise in CPB funding for the year 2001. The appropriation would rise from $300 million, already enacted for 2000, to $340 million in 2001--a 13 percent raise. The CPB appropriations this year and next year are $250 million.

Clinton's fiscal 1999 budget also proposed $7 million for Ready to Learn projects, which has largely gone to public TV; $34 million for the Star Schools distance learning projects; and $2 million for PBS's Mathline program, according to APTS.

And the budget includes $136 million each for the arts and humanities endowments--increases from this year's $98 million and $111 million, respectively.

Questions on salary cap

Now it will be Congress's turn to talk about spending. First of the season's hearings will be held April 22 by the House appropriations subcommittee chaired by John Porter (R-Ill.) Public TV will hold a tutorial about digital TV this week on Capitol Hill.

"For the most part, people understand there's a federally mandated change we have to go through," said Brugger. "Now it's a lot of answering questions."

PBS executive salaries will return as an issue, as in past years. Rep. Tom Bliley (R-Va.), chairman of the House Commerce Committee, and member Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.) jointly wrote to CPB, PBS and NPR on Jan. 29 asking for information on six top officials at PBS and two at NPR who were paid more than the $148,400 salary cap written into CPB's authorizing law [Earlier article].

The news "could expose PBS and NPR to charges that these organizations have circumvented the Section 396 salary cap by distributing large bonuses and/or other supplemental pay to their officers and employees," Bliley and Paxon told CPB.

Official responses to the letter were due to the committee late last week. Both PBS and NPR contended earlier that the excess amounts don't violate the law because they were not regular annual salary. PBS said performance bonuses pushed up the salaries; NPR said the overages were non-salary payments--a taxable insurance premium and a pre-vesting retirement benefit.

PBS will report payments for "a number of occasions over the past 20 years," said Tom Epstein, communications director. A December report in Communications Daily, which raised the issue, focused only on 1996 compensation.



To Current's home page

Earlier news: Six executives at PBS and two at NPR received higher compensation than the salary cap imposed by Congress.

Current Briefing on public TV's transition to digital transmission.


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