CPB Faces Possible Budget Cuts

President Bush’s proposed budgets for 2004 and 2005 will introduce deep cuts and radical changes for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) if they pass through Congress later this year unaltered. In addition to a tighter budget, CPB would not receive advance appropriations for 2006. Advance appropriations allow CPB and the media entities it funds, such as PBS and NPR, to plan for upcoming seasons in similar manners as commercial networks like ABC or HBO. These appropriations also protect public broadcasters from being pressured by politicians to some degree. If the current budget is approved, it would be the first time that CPB has been denied this kind of funding since 1976, when advance appropriations were first applied by Congress. “[It] would certainly remove one of the fire walls that protects us from political interference in production and programming decisions,” says John Lawson, president and CEO of the Association of Public Television Stations (APTS), an organization which works with CPB, PBS, and NPR on funding and advocacy issues. “And it would inject a major dose of unpredictability into public television and our process of establishing budgets.”

As Congress negotiates the President’s budget, Lawson encourages people to voice their support of public television by writing their Senators and Representatives, and also by logging on to http://ptvaction.org, an advocacy website run up by APTS. Lawson notes that for the past two years the President has made similar efforts to eliminate advance funding, but Congress has overridden him in both cases. “It’s like the old saying, ‘the President proposes, Congress disposes,’” he jokes.

Though fewer than fifty percent of public broadcasting’s income comes from tax-based revenues, CPB appropriations are critical because they provide a secure operating base. The President’s proposed budget further erodes CPB’s operating budget by earmarking $100 million in 2004’s proposed $380 million budget for digital conversion. Taking these funds out of CPB’s operating budget would be “disastrous,” says Lawson. “His budget would cannibalize the funding that goes into production and operations.”

APTS estimates that the total cost of converting every PBS station to a completely digital broadcast signal by the FCC deadline of 2006 will be $1.7 billion. All 357 PBS stations must convert to at least partially digital broadcast by May 1, 2003. As of press time, 107 stations had met this deadline. One recent station to convert was Pennsylvania’s WPSX. Kate Zomico, the station’s director of technology, said their own conversion process (which now enables WPSX to broadcast “a limited digital signal”) made use of a variety of resources, including state funds, a capital capaign, and a grant from the Public Telecommuni-cations Facilities Program (PTFP), a federal organization which provides matching grants for, among other telecommunications institutions, public television and radio. (President Bush has also recently suggested eliminating funding for the PTFP, but the House and the Senate have agreed to keep it funded in the fiscal year 2003.) “Everyone has been doing their conversion to digital in their own creative ways,” says Zomico.

So far, 192 PBS stations have anticipated they won’t meet the May 1 deadline and requested waivers from the FCC. “I think by May 1 we’ll have a majority of our stations on the air, which is way ahead of where the commercial broadcast industry was on their deadline of May 1, 2002,” says Lawson.

But Lawson also emphasizes that “2006, of course, is just a date on a piece of paper. The real transition number is eighty-five, meaning that eighty-five percent of the households in a market have to be capable of receiving a digital signal” before analog broadcast can be discontinued entirely.

“People in public television see the promise in digital,” he says. “There is no business model right now that justifies the investment in a commercial sense. But when your orientation is delivering services to communities . . . I believe that the more federal funding is tied to local production and local services, the more success we’ll have in not only preserving CPB funding and CPB services, but growing CPB funding over the next several years.”

Court of Appeals to Rule on Cable Internet Regulation

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (which covers Oregon, Califor-nia, Nevada, and Washington) is hearing a case this month that, if successful, would reestablish cable internet access under the same laws that govern cable broadcasting. The case is challenging a 2002 action by the Federal Communi-cations Commision (FCC) which classified internet access from cable modems as an “information service” rather than a “cable service.” This effectively deregulated cable internet services and eliminated the fees due to public access centers from these internet services under franchise agreement. Because the FCC action removed ownership limits for cable internet, it could encourage monopolies and “subtle forms” of discrimination, according to Cheryl A. Leanza, deputy director of the Media Access Project, one of the organizations arguing against the FCC. “[Unlike phone companies] cable companies can choose the content on your system.”

Film and video distribution over the internet could also be restricted. Leanza points out that in cable internet’s infancy, many providers only allowed consumers to download video clips under ten seconds. A restriction they quickly and quietly rescinded, fearing legal repercussions and public outcry.

Cable providers overwhelmingly have supported the FCC’s decision. “The cable companies just said ‘trust us,’ which makes us very suspicious,” Leanza says. “If you would never do anything wrong, why would you be afraid of a rule?”

A decision is expected this fall. If the court rules against the FCC, it is expected the FCC will appeal and take the issue to the Supreme Court.

For more information on the Media Access Project, visit www.mediaaccess.org.

To file a comment with the FCC on this issue, visit http://gullfoss2.fcc.gov/ecfs/Upload

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Charlie Sweitzer is a New York-based writer.