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CPB Plays Budget Survivor

The reality-TV craze comes at a fortuitous time for public television. As war worries and a bad economy force the federal government to press for domestic-spending cuts anywhere they can be found, public broadcasters are trying to fend off attacks on their government largesse by pointing to the increasingly questionable quality of today's commercial-broadcast programming.

Making that pitch to lawmakers who control his purse strings, Corporation for Public Broadcasting CEO Robert Coonrod last week formally kicked off noncommercial broadcasters' most critical legislative year in a decade. "Our mission is to serve the public, not the market," he told a House appropriations subcommittee. "The market brings us Survivor
and American Idol, The Bachelor
and The Bachelorette,
to say nothing of three separate Michael Jackson documentaries in a single week. Public broadcasters are in a different business."

The appeal to higher tastes worked on Idaho Republican Mike Simpson, who said National Public Radio's analytical news programs and PBS documentaries "make me think."

That's exactly the reaction Coonrod was looking for.

If public broadcasting is seen as the necessary counterweight to commercial stations' reality mania, lawmakers may be more willing to preserve preferential budgeting that gives federal commitments to CPB two years in advance. The Bush Administration wants to scrap the arrangement and replace it with the year-to-year budgeting applied to most other federal programs.

Ohio Republican Ralph Regula, who chairs the House subcommittee that approves the corporation's budget, questioned why CPB should receive advanced funding when critical agencies such as the National Institutes of Health don't get that advantage. Coonrod said the arrangement is necessary to insulate programming independence from political pressure and to guarantee funds that can be leveraged into greater private donations.

Previous Bush White House attempts to eliminate advanced funding have failed. "If past is prologue," as one Capitol Hill staffer put it, the latest attempt, which would affect funds for fiscal 2005 and 2006, will fall by the wayside, too.

Besides defending advanced budgeting, CPB priorities include securing funds for converting TV and radio stations to digital and securing new funds for distance-learning programs and a next-generation satellite interconnection system for delivering programming to stations.

Those issues and more will also go before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which plans a reauthorization bill to renew CPB's charter. One top issue will be funneling money though CPB to stations. "We would like to look at the possibility of giving more revenue directly to stations," said Ken Johnson, spokesman for committee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.).

Complaints about public broadcasters' increasing commercialization also will be examined. Federal judges last week heard testimony on whether public-TV stations may carry advertising on a portion of their digital spectrum.

To glean information for the bill, Tauzin and other lawmakers have asked the General Accounting Office to examine CPB's operations.

For now, Coonrod's priority is the budget. Last week, he urged Regula to add to the $380 million CPB has already secured for fiscal 2004 another $80 million for digital-facility construction and a $20 million first installment in a $177 million replacement of public broadcasting's satellite interconnection system. He also is seeking $390 million in guaranteed funds for fiscal 2005 and $410 million for 2006.

CPB also endorsed addition of $70 million in National Telecommunications and Information Administration grants for DTV construction and $41 million in distance-learning funds to be administered by the Department of Education.