Lawson to lead APTS
Will fight for DTV aid, battle block grants
Originally published in Current, March 26, 2001
By Stephanie Lash
Before America's Public Television Stations hired him as its new president last week, John Lawson was already doing his new job: working to convince Congress of the educational merits of digital TV and the demerits of state block grants, which would undo national projects like Ready to Learn.
Lawson's new bosses lauded his "bullish commitment" to the promise of DTV.
Those have been major themes in his work since 1993 as a lobbyist for pubcasting and educational groups that are clients of his firm, Convergence Services. Before that, he handled similar issues in his 1990-93 stint as director of national affairs at APTS.
On April 1, Lawson will start work as president of APTS, succeeding David Brugger, who left the association last December after 13 years in the job.
One of Lawson's objectives will be to entice Congress to allocate funds for pubcasting's digital transition by using a strategy recently devised by APTS' Legislative Advisory Group: in return for funding and must-carry provisions, pubcasting stations will allocate one of their multicast channels to formal educational programming.
It's a new selling point for a client Lawson knows well. In his earlier work with APTS he lobbied Congress on CPB, education, telecommunications, Head Start and rural development legislation. He also has station experience, having served three years as director of public information for South Carolina Educational Television. Lawson worked in the campaigns and administration of South Carolina Gov. Richard Riley, who later served as Secretary of Education in the Clinton Administration. In the mid-1980s, he worked on nuclear waste policy as executive director of an environmental group, the Energy Research Foundation.
Beth Courtney, chairman of the APTS board and president of Louisiana Public Broadcasting, said those experiences were a critical factor in his selection.
"He has a passion for public broadcasting, and he values our services," Courtney said. "Some experiences in his private business have involved education technology and that is also a real plus, because he's been a great advocate for positioning public broadcasting as a deliverer of educational services."
Convergence Services, which Lawson founded in 1993 in Alexandria, Va., been active in DTV transition issues almost since the beginning and served as advocate for pubcasters and other clients on issues such as Ready to Learn and educational technology. Lawson also worked extensively with major public TV stations in attempts to develop revenue-producing partnerships with high-tech firms.
Lawson's enthusiasm for lobbying was a prime factor in his selection by the APTS search committee, said Mary Bitterman, president of KQED, San Francisco, who chaired the group along with John Maxey, a partner in the law firm of Maxey, Wann, Begley & Fyke in Jackson, Miss. Bitterman noted that Lawson's "bullish commitment to the promise of digital conversion, considerable energy" and knowledge of stations, the industry and Capitol Hill will help him face the challenge of presenting a unified voice of public broadcasting to lawmakers.
"One of the things we're striving for in the public broadcasting family is to speak with one voice," Courtney said. "APTS has been saying that for the TV community, we want to take the lead, and with that comes a responsibility that we do it with great enthusiasm, commitment and energy. John brings that as well. At the G4 level [the presidents of pubcasting's major national organizations], we want to make sure we're all presenting the same numbers to the Hill with the same coordinated approach."
Bitterman said Lawson received unanimous support from the board when the committee made its recommendation. The selection group had surveyed stations to determine the important characteristics of the new president, and she said he had much of the experience and "passion for public broadcasting" to take on the job.
Lawson said he will close his company, Convergence Services, after a transition period still to be determined. But he said the board and search committee agreed that there is a "win-win" in the situation by "merging some of my current business into APTS-- if our current clients want to do that."
"Bringing our business into APTS not only creates new revenue for the association, but adds value for APTS members by providing a 'one-stop-shop' for both system needs and more specialized station needs," Lawson said.
Stations will pledge educational channel in exchange for DTV aid
Lawson will take a newly revised legislative agenda into battle for DTV transition aid. Public TV will promise to set aside one of its planned DTV multicast channels for formal educational services. In exchange, Congress would provide federal funds for the digital transition and adopt must-carry rules requiring cable systems to carry public TV's digital channels. The strategy was endorsed unanimously this month by station reps on APTS's Legislative Advisory Group (LAG) and adopted by the APTS Board.
The offer of a multicast channel doesn't sound revolutionary, said LAG member Steve Bass, of Nashville Public Television, but it is important. The consensus marks the first time a group of stations has gotten together and felt comfortable enough to make that type of promise, he said.
"With a new administration that's saying education is central to their mission, we realize that's where we are and have been for the last 40 years," he said. "Why wouldn't we want to make that the centerpiece of our case?"
APTS says that of the stations it has surveyed, 96 percent already plan to commit one of their multicasting channels to formal education (see commentary, page 18).
As for the amount of DTV transition aid, APTS is looking for $110 million for the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program. The request is the same as last year's but twice what Congress appropriated for PTFP last year.
Over five years, APTS will request an authorization of $699 million, a figure that has been adjusted from the 1997 request of $770 million. APTS spokeswoman Nancy Neubauer said the amount was "adjusted to reality." The Clinton Administration proposed to spend $450 million, and federal DTV aid so far has been in the tens of millions.
PBS now estimates that the cost of the digital transition for public television and radio will be $1.8 billion, not the $1.7 billion estimated last year. Those figures initially worried some LAG members, who questioned the wisdom of requesting significantly less for digital funding than stations require. David Dial of WNIN in Evansville, Ind., said the members soon realized that if they requested the amount they really needed, it would be so large that it wouldn't pass "the laugh test" among politicians.
APTS Vice President Marilyn Mohrman-Gillis says public TV has consistently asked on the low side. "We say that while our need for digital funding may be X, what we can reasonably ask for in terms of this year's appropriation, given the budget constraints, is Y," she said. Since 1997, APTS has asked Congress to put up 48 percent of the total cost for the digital transition.
The costs of DTV have been figured into the PTFP request. Chet Tomczyk, g.m. of WTVP, Peoria, Ill., said because it's hard enough securing funds for existing programs, asking for new streams of funding would not be effective. "So we decided PTFP would be the way to go, to convince Congress to bolster the funding for PTFP so there's adequate support to take care of station needs" to meet the conversion deadline in 2003.
LAG also approved a final set of budget requests that have been sent to congressional appropriators. APTS will seek an advance appropriation of $395 million for CPB in fiscal year 2004, a figure that does not including any DTV conversion aid. Last year APTS sought $365 million for fiscal 2003, and Congress appropriated $350 million.
Lobbyists from the organization will also push for $24 million for Ready to Learn, up from the $16 million request and appropriation last year.
APTS Chairperson Beth Courtney, president of Louisiana Public Broadcasting, made the stations' case at a March 15 hearing before the House Commerce Committee's telecommunications subcommittee. Surrounded by eight representatives from commercial broadcasting, including Lowell Paxson, chairman of Paxson Communications and Martin Franks, executive v.p. of CBS, Courtney geared discussion towards the accomplishments of public television stations in converting to digital signals and their plans for DTV programming.
Courtney also asked for assurances from the FCC or Congress for must-carry protection for DTV multicast channels. If satellite and cable operators are not required to carry public television station channels, "nobody can receive our educational services," Courtney said. "Parents want these services, and I know our educators really want it. I'm concerned about ultimately delivering those services."
Rep. Elliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and other subcommittee members commended pubcasters' progress and expressed support for funding their transition. Broadcast and electronics industry reps spent part of the four-hour hearing trading blame for why much of the nation is without digital TV receivers or programming. Manufacturers claim they can't sell digital receivers until broadcasters provide content for those channels, while broadcasters say they can't develop programming until more consumers buy digital sets.
Cable operators argued against must-carry provisions, rallying in support of an FCC decision that cable operators are required to carry only one multicast digital channel of a digital-only station. But Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), made specific mention of public broadcasters' dilemma in his opening statement.
"It is my hope that broadcasters will still be able to enjoy carriage of their multicasted programming based on the market demand for such programming pursuant to retransmission consent agreements," he said. "I also note the decision's particular strong impact on the public broadcasters, who have been busily engaged in developing genuine DTV business plans that are heavily reliant on multicasting for educational and informational purposes."
Immediate task: oppose shift to block grants
Public broadcasters are fighting a multifront war on Capitol Hill, with Ready to Learn and TeacherLine the impending casualties. In President Bush's sweeping new education plan, the bulk of Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) funding would be divvied up to states in block grants, gutting grant programs with explicit targeted purposes like Ready to Learn. Republicans and moderate Democrats see consolidated grants as a way to give decision-making power to localities.
The ESEA rewrite does allow for some national programs to remain funded through the Department of Education, but Ready to Learn and TeacherLine are not among them.
"We're fighting like hell to turn people around," said Lawson, speaking in his pre-APTS capacity, as president of his lobbying firm, Convergence Services.
He and other public broadcasting lobbyists have been fighting to take Ready to Learn and TeacherLine out of the block grants, arguing that it's efficient to pool funds for national productions such as Between the Lions, which are seen by children in all states.
Ready to Learn is currently funded at $16 million for the 2001 fiscal year. Lawson argues that dividing that money among 50 states plus the territories would dilute its effect and keep it from creating quality children's programming.
But many station managers, whom APTS is encouraging to lobby their representatives in Congress, initially expressed confusion about how the block grants would impact their operations. Part of the LAG meeting was used to educate attendees about the fall-out of such a move.
"If you ask the typical station, 'What's the implication of this money being block-granted to states?,' the typical response might be 'What's the difference, as long as I get the money anyway?'" Steve Bass said. "What becomes clear is that the programs would be significantly impacted because a large portion of the money goes to production of the national programs."
Realizing this, Sens. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) introduced the Ready to Learn, Ready to Teach Act of 2001. The two original sponsors of the 1999 Digital Education Act are working against consolidation and have proposed to reauthorize Ready to Learn and TeacherLine. Unlike the Digital Education Act, this new bill does not create a new program for the Digital Education Content Collaborative, a program that would provide funds for stations to develop new educational technologies. Rather, it would authorize digital content station grants as an acceptable use of funds under TeacherLine, Lawson explains.
"I'm guardedly optimistic that a small number of programs will be restored, and the Cochran/Kennedy bill is designed to give us leverage and make sure our programs are among those which will be restored," he said.
Public broadcasters are also waiting for specific budget amounts for programs like CPB and PTFP, which have yet to be broken down by the Bush Administration. But the new president has already suggested unchanged funding for NEA and NEH. Bush requested $120 million for both agencies for the 2002 fiscal year, an amount consistent with the Clinton Administration and that quells fears that the Republican executive branch might cut back the cultural agencies.
. To Current's home page .
Later news: Lawson leaves APTS for Ion Media Networks, 2008.
. Outside links: APTS and Lawson's lobbying company, Convergence Services.
Web page posted March 28, 2001
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