PBS president talks tough on fund-raising

TV: Public television's policy on sharing donor lists may give stations wiggle room.

August 02, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

LOS ANGELES -- The president of PBS yesterday said actions are being taken that will put an end to the controversial practice of public television stations sharing membership lists with political organizations.

But, even as he promised reform, he acknowledged that the full extent of such list-swapping is not yet known.

And, under heavy questioning from reporters about the controversy, which has created a major threat to funding for public television, it became apparent that PBS is talking tougher than it is actually behaving with its affiliated stations.

"This is a serious matter, and we need to take it seriously," Ervin S. Duggan, the president and CEO of the Public Broadcasting Service, said here yesterday.

"The exchange of lists was ill-advised and calls into question the impartiality and independence of public television. I acknowledge this is inappropriate behavior. But, as you can see from our actions, a stop has already been put to it," he added.

Not exactly.

The nonprofit Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which dispenses federal funds to PBS and the 349 U.S. public TV stations, announced last week that stations that swap membership lists with political parties could lose their funding.

Although Duggan characterized CPB's action as a policy that would automatically cut off funds for any stations buying, selling, renting or trading lists with political organizations, the policy's actual language says CPB "may disqualify" stations that do so. Further, none of the actions by CPB or PBS expressly prohibit the stations from buying, selling, renting or trading lists with other nonprofit organizations that are not overtly political.

Stations involved in selling or trading lists with nonprofits are the largest, including Boston's WGBH, New York's WNET, Washington's WETA, Los Angeles' KCET and Maryland's MPT. Duggan estimated that as much as 25 percent of the fund-raising dollars such stations earn come through direct-mail campaigns that use such donor lists.

When asked why PBS doesn't go all the way and threaten to cut off any station involved in the practice of exchanging lists in any way, Duggan said, "I don't think it would be necessary to overreact and crack the whip that way."

The controversy, which has been fueled by conservative members of Congress who helped expose the practice of PBS stations exchanging lists with the Democratic National Committee, has already delayed a vote on funding for public television.

The House Telecommunications Subcommittee had been expected last month to recommend a substantial increase in annual funding that would take the budget from $250 million in 1999 to $340 million in 2002. The legislation added an extra $450 million over the four years to help PBS stations move to digital technology.

That subcommittee vote is now on hold, awaiting results of an investigation into how many stations are involved in such practices. Duggan said "only between 30 and 50 stations" are involved but acknowledged that the survey of stations by the CPB is not yet complete, so more could be.

As for how the subcommittee -- and, ultimately Congress -- will vote, Duggan said: "I don't know what the final fallout will be. But I believe we have a reservoir of trust and esteem with the American people."

One victim of the early fallout was the PBS fall preview sessions over the weekend here, as the controversy over list-swapping diverted attention from PBS' promotional efforts.

On a local level, one story that could have major long-term implications involved MPT's joining the PBS Sponsorship Group, a coalition of the system's strongest stations, formed two years ago to collectively seek underwriting. Last year, the four stations involved earned $65 million in program sponsorships.

MPT and Chicago's WTTW joined WETA, WGBH, WNET and KCET in the sponsorship group, PBS announced yesterday.

"WTTW and Maryland Public TV are among the leading public television stations in the nation," Peter Greene, executive director of the group, said in making the announcement.

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