House panel cool to request for digital transition funds

Originally published in Current, May 4, 1998

By Karen Everhart Bedford

CPB President Bob Coonrod faced tough questions about digital transition funding April 22 from Rep. John Porter (R-Ill.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees CPB spending.

The field's request for DTV aid was the main focus of the subcommittee's hearing, with Porter and Rep. Anne Northrup (R-Ky.) questioning both the costs and wisdom of rushing to meet the FCC's conversion deadlines for TV stations. Porter suggested that public broadcasting was putting the "cart before the horse" because of uncertainties over the FCC's mandated timelines, and proposed seven options to finance the conversion with less federal support.

CPB is sticking with the White House's proposal to contribute $450 million over five years--about a quarter of public broadcasting's estimated transition costs of $1.7 billion. This marks a split with APTS, PBS and NPR, which are asking Congress for $600 million over four years. Under both plans, the money would be appropriated in two separate pots: $375 million to CPB and the remainders to the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program.

For fiscal 1999, CPB is asking Congress to appropriate $50 million; stations are requesting $75 million.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) asked Coonrod about the different requests. "Is this enough, or is it what you thought you could get?," she queried.

CPB's request for $50 million is "enough to get us started," responded Coonrod. "The $75 million requested by the stations would be better."

For its regular, forward-funded operating funds, CPB asked appropriators for $340 million in fiscal 2000. This would boost federal aid to the system 13 percent beyond the $300 million that Congress approved for fiscal 2000.

"Questions get tougher"

Before launching into his critique of the field's DTV request, Porter noted that many members of the Labor-HHS-Education appropriations subcommittee are "very supportive of what CPB does; that means our questions get tougher."

Porter expressed doubts that the FCC's deadlines for DTV conversion are achievable, that manufacturers can meet demands for transmitters, and that the costs of conversion are realistic. Pubcasters have taken a "haphazard" approach in requesting the funds, he said, because Congress has not authorized the spending.

Instead of counting on major federal aid, Porter suggested the field take out private or government-backed loans; pursue moneymaking mechanisms proposed by former Rep. Jack Fields (R-Tex.); and make cooperative agreements with commercial entities. He also suggested that Congress allow CPB to direct a portion of its regular appropriation to the conversion, or that the field request its conversion aid entirely from PTFP.

Coonrod responded to each option, noting that a government loan program offers "more promise" than private borrowing, because stations can't guarantee to lenders that the digital spectrum will generate new revenues. Pursuing Fields' revenue-enhancement proposals, which did not gain support in the last Congress, would erode "cohesion in the field," he said. Several stations are already pursuing cooperative agreements with commercial broadcasters.

Directing funds from CPB's regular appropriation is a "kind of a Hobson's choice," Coonrod said, because it would limit the system's ability to develop new DTV programs. Funding the conversion through PTFP is an option, he acknowledged, but its funds in recent years have not been adequate to meet existing needs.

CPB has funded pubcasting's largest capital outlays in the past--the satellite system and its recent replacement. "This is of that scope and magnitude," said Coonrod. "We are talking about a wholesale conversion, not purchasing individual pieces of equipment.

In a later exchange, Porter pointed that CPB enjoys a "large advantage" in the appropriations process because Congress allocates its funds two years in advance. CPB's appropriation comes off the top, he said, and "all the other programs have to compete for what's left over." He asked whether the subcommitee shouldn't reconsider CPB's 1999 appropriation of $250 million, in light of its request for another $50 million.

Support for that appropriation is "absolutely rock hard, strong and solid," responded Coonrod. He doubted that it would be "worth the effort" to reexamine it.

Rep. Northrup, whose questions focused on how much conversion costs would drop as more stations adopted DTV technology, suggested that "the kindest thing we can do" is to ask the FCC to delay implementation by two years. She asked Porter if the subcommittee could draft such a letter to the commission, and the chairman agreed to consider it.

Pelosi asked what will happen if Congress does not aid the field's digital transition. "Certainly some stations would make the transition, but we will lose universal service," responded Coonrod. "The educational potential of digital TV would be truncated if stations had to concentrate their funds on conversion, rather than programs." Public broadcasting would lose "the opportunity to serve multiple audiences."


To Current's home page

Earlier news: Clinton Administration proposes to fund one-quarter of estimated DTV conversion costs for pubcasting.

Current Briefing on public TV and the digital transition.


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