Tauzin/Markey bill would boost CPB 60 percent, restrict underwriting and launch funding study
Originally published in Current, June 22, 1998. This article includes links to the text of the bill.
By Steve Behrens
Pubcasters loudly applauded a long-overdue CPB reauthorization bill after House telecom subcommittee Chairman W.J. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) gave them their first details in a satellite hookup June 15, during the PBS Annual Meeting.
Not only would the bill launch a blue-ribbon commission to recommend a long-range funding mechanism for the field, but it proposes a nearly 60 percent increase in the CPB appropriation already adopted for the year 2000, plus a temporary supplement for the digital transition.
In exchange for the raise, pubcasters would face a significant rollback in the commercialization of underwriting credits--a provision not discussed in detail during the satellite hookup.
The next day, Tauzin introduced the Public Broadcasting Reform Act of 1998 (H.R. 4067), which would authorize spending at $475 million a year in years 2000 through 2003--up from the already-enacted appropriations of $250 million for next year and $300 million for 2000. And it would authorize digital transition aid of $95 million a year for five years.
Pubcasting's top four alphabet organizations called the bill "a good starting point for a critical discussion of the issues." They described Tauzin and Markey as "informed, conscientious leaders on public broadcasting issues."
"As [Rep.] John Porter said, Congress heard from the public and they want public broadcasting preserved," commented David Brugger, president of America's Public Television Stations. The draft bill would not only preserve the field but reform it and make it a stable system, Brugger continued. "In that sense, it's very good."
Lobbyists for the field were just beginning to analyze the bill last week, before consulting with station leaders, and did not have detailed comments.
Bright dividing line
The bill follows through on Tauzin's often-expressed plan to draw a bright line between commercial and public broadcasting. It directs a nine-member commission to look into ways that commercial broadcasters could help support pubcasting.
And, to the likely dismay of pubcasters who sell 30-second spots, it would try to reverse the field's commercialization. The bill would immediately limit underwriting credits to 10 seconds length and allow them to say only: "This program sponsored in part by (name of underwriter)."
Tauzin wants to see Congress establish a long-term funding mechanism that eventually provides 70 percent of public broadcasting's revenues, according to spokesman Ken Johnson. When that day arrives, the bill would end those new restrictions on underwriting credits.
The congressman told the PBS gathering that Congress has been "schizophrenic" about public broadcasting, holding down its federal subsidy while complaining about commercialization.
He'd like to free commercial broadcasters of duties that should be left to commercial broadcasters. The commission on funding, created by the bill, would consider such options as letting commercial broadcasters opt out of public-interest obligations by paying a fee to support pubcasting.
Under a favorite funding option, the fees to be charged to commercial TV for subscription and nonbroadcast uses of DTV would be diverted to support pubcasting, said Tauzin's spokesman.
Dim view of overlaps
The Tauzin/Markey bill differs in many ways from the stalled proposal by Tauzin's predecessor, the now-retired Rep. Jack Fields (R-Tex.)--among other things, by having Markey's support.
But the bill shares with Fields the widespread Capitol Hill view that public broadcasting stations should be encouraged to consolidate.
Among the objectives listed for the commission that it sets up, the bill says DTV conversion "may involve" limiting CPB aid "to the equivalent of funding for one station per market."
And in the section that guides future appropriations for both radio and TV, the bill offers an incentive to fold overlapping public stations into a single channel. The combined station would get annual CPB grants equal to 150 percent of what a single station would ordinarily receive.
This gives stations an incentive to consolidate and operate efficiently, while it gives Congress an incentive to pass the bill, spokesman Ken Johnson added pointedly.
While the drafters offer an incentive to disband overlap stations, they want the system as a whole to get the spectrum sale income instead of the individual licensee. A licensee could sell or lease out an overlap station for a fair price but the "unjust enrichment" provision would require it to pay back the "net federal investment" in the station. That's the total of grants given over the years by CPB and the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program--plus interest on those grants as if they had been federal bonds.
No rush about DTV
Tauzin acknowledged in his satellite appearance that the amounts proposed for digital transition aid are on the low side, but indicated that the funds may not be needed as soon as pubcasters believe, because the transition will stretch beyond the FCC's calendar.
The bill would authorize spending $95 million a year on transition aid, or $475 million over five years--short of the $600 million sought by the field, but somewhat ahead of the Clinton Administration proposal forwarded to Congress this month. The Administration suggests a total of $450 million--$375 million through CPB and $75 million through the Commerce Department's Public Telecommunications Facilities Program (PTFP). The Tauzin/Markey bill doesn't mention special digital aid through PTFP, though it does reauthorize PTFP without a dollar amount for fiscal years 1999, 2000 and 2001.
Despite the high cost, going digital is "critical," Tauzin said last week, because it opens up new interactive media opportunities. "It's really about getting our televisions to talk in computer language," he said.
Ending the Big Bird problem
The "blue-ribbon" Commission for the Future of Public Broadcasting, proposed in the bill, would be split nearly equally between Republican and Democratic appointees. Two of the nine commissioners would be appointed by the president, two by the speaker of the House, two by the Senate Republican leader, and one each by the House and Senate Democratic leaders. The ninth, and the chairman, would be selected by the other eight and appointed by the President.
Their assignment, should they choose to accept it, would be nearly Mission Impossible: ridding Congress of the Big Bird problem, without unacceptable affronts to either the opponents or friends of an emblematic survivor from LBJ's Great Society. And all in four months.
In general, the commission would go forth "to ensure the future ability of public broadcasting in the United States to carry out its noncommercial mission."
But its detailed marching orders seem to have been slipped into a suggestion box by a mixture of friends and devoted opponents. The commission would identify and analyze options for:
- supporting pubcasting stations and helping them convert to DTV and other new technologies;
- capitalizing "a fiscal mechanism or entity"--some kind of trust fund, perhaps--to fund CPB instead of making direct appropriations;
- reducing federal spending on pubcasting by eliminating CPB, funding no more than one PTV station per market, and selling or leasing out some overlap stations;
- letting commercial broadcasters choose to pay an opt-out fee, which benefits CPB, to be exempted from the FCC's content-based public-interest mandates, presumably including educational programming for children; and
- "enhancing the noncommercial mission" of pubcasting, expanding local programming, backing cultural programs for underserved audiences and educational programs for kids, making such programs available to schools and libraries, and reducing duplicative programming.
The commission's recommendations would have to please a wide variety of politicians, so it would set out with a variety of assignments. Tauzin said it was Speaker Newt Gingrich, for instance, who suggested distributing federal aid through block grants to states rather than through CPB. The panel will examine that option.
The bill does not address a low-profile lobbying objective of CPB, PBS and NPR: removing the present salary cap on their executive pay levels. In reply to a question from Robert H. Malott, a PBS Board member and chairman of the executive committee of FMC Corp., Tauzin made no commitment to repeal the salary cap, but said a provision could be added later. He said it was not a good time to consider the pay cap, when his subcommittee is questioning exec salaries at the FCC's nonprofit Schools and Libraries Corp., which administers the controversial new "e-rate" subsidies for schools' use of telecom.
In a separate development, APTS reported that the U.S. Department of Education is making available funds for closed captioning of instructional TV programs. Five grants of about $125,000 apiece will be offered, with an application deadline in July, said APTS lobbyist Marcia Knutson.
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