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KCET Sharpens Edge on Tin Cup

Fundraisers for at least one public-TV station have found a silver lining in recent threats to reduce public broadcasting’s federal funding: KCET Los Angeles is citing the threats as a tool to extract donations from sympathetic viewers. B&C’s Ben Grossman last week happened to receive a telephone solicitation from a KCET rep warning that Washington was “trying to take down PBS” with more than $200 million in cuts next year. The pitch: A great way to show members of Congress that public broadcasting enjoys wide support would be an increase in donations to local stations. “We need to show them now,” Grossman was told.

When we spoke to KCET General Manager Al Jerome, he said the station’s phone appeals are contracted out and that he does not see the scripts. Jerome said that, while it is possible that playing the budget-cut card is part of the official telemarketing script, it is also possible that Grossman’s caller was doing a little “improvisation.”

As it happens, KCET’s Web site sounds similarly dire warnings about the threat from Congress, warning that, should the cuts go through, the burden of funding operations “will fall entirely to local public-television stations, decimating their ability to finance local programming, educational outreach—and even to air PBS programming.”

When B&C quizzed public-broadcasting representatives in Washington about fundraisers using the contemplated budget cuts for leverage, they fretted that the tactic could backfire once targets of the pitch realized that the Cassandra-like warnings are over the top. For starters, federal funds account for only 15% of public broadcasting’s budget. The cuts would hardly be lethal. More to the point, the threat to public broadcasting’s funds is fading daily. The $211 million in reductions recently suggested by the House Appropriations Committee are all but certain to be reinstated after Senate appropriators last week refused to go along. Jeffrey Davis, spokesman for the Association of Public Television Stations, says, “We’ve been confident all along that the money would be restored.”