Congress takes up debate over funds for public TV, radio

January 19, 1995|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Sun Staff Writer

An article in yesterday's Today section about federal financing for public broadcasting incorrectly reported the amount the government spends on military bands. That amount is $175 million.

The Sun regrets the error.

And, a graphic in yesterday's Today section about the funding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting incorrectly reported the amount of money spent on administrative expenses. CPB spends $13 million, or 4.6 percent of its budget, in that area.

* The Sun regrets the error.

The debate in Washington over whether Congress should cut federal support for public radio and television is founded on sound economics, harsh ideology, undisguised partisanship, or concern for public education -- depending on who's talking.


Though rhetoric has been flying since Speaker Newt Gingrich threatened last month to "zero out" funding for public broadcasting, the formal debate begins today as a House appropriations subcommittee considers whether to take back money that Congress has already pledged to public broadcasting.

The debate, however, is not solely about money. It involves two larger questions. Has public television outlived its usefulness in this age of cable TV, or does it still provide access to information that many could not otherwise afford? And, has public broadcasting become a voice for liberalism in an increasingly conservative country?

Whatever the answers, few think public television and radio will escape unscathed. As one congressional aide joked, "Around here, we figure Big Bird may well be a dead duck."

His observation is echoed, albeit more circumspectly, in many offices on Capitol Hill, including those belonging to fans of public broadcasting.

"Given the nature of the national debt and the budget deficit and the deep cuts into Medicare and Medicaid and food stamps and welfare, can we afford at this time to continue to give money to public broadcasting? These are questions I'm going to have to answer," said Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest of Maryland.

To proponents of public broadcasting, however, the threat of cutbacks spells disaster. "The funding picture is like a house -- cutting out a certain percent of federal funding is like bulldozing the foundation," said Maryland Public Television president Raymond K.K. Ho.

What seems lost in the increasingly heated discussions is the amount of money being considered -- $285.6 million, or about .02 percent of the annual national budget. About 75 percent of that ** amount goes to public television and the rest to public radio.

"Compared to the total federal government's budget this amount is minuscule. The government spends as about as much on public radio, about $70 million, as the military does on marching bands," said Douglas Gomery, a professor at the University of Maryland College Park who specializes in the television industry.

Initially, the idea behind public broadcasting was to guarantee viewers and listeners a spectrum of programming choices beyond those offered by the three existing networks. In 1967, Congress created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which oversees the Public Broadcast System and National Public Radio, to provide financial assistance to noncommercial television and radio stations.

About 1,000 radio and TV stations nationwide now receive CPB funding that varies from 4 percent to 40 percent of their operating budgets, said Jeannie Bunton, a CPB spokeswoman.

With the advent of cable TV, however, the spectrum of viewing choices has exploded into the hundreds. Conservative Republicans like Mr. Gingrich, who want to cancel its federal support, argue public broadcasting is no longer needed.

About 64 percent of the 95.4 million American homes with television -- or, 61 million homes -- have cable, according to the National Cable Television Association.

"In light of the fact that in many areas we have 100 cable stations that do what public broadcasting used to do, you have to ask do we need it? Channels like the Discovery Channel, the Learning Channel, do a lot of what used to be exclusively the realm of public TV," said Illinois Rep. John E. Porter, chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee.

Today's hearings, he said, "will be a re-examination -- like what we are doing with everything else in the budget -- of the role of public broadcasting in light of changed budgetary circumstances."

In addition, Sen. Larry Pressler, R-S.D. is calling for the privatization of public TV and radio. He is the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which later will consider

reauthorization of the CPB.

But some academics and politicians -- from both parties -- say that while cable TV provides quantities of choices -- it doesn't necessarily provide quality.

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