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PBS Fights for its Future

Public broadcasters are gearing up for their most important lobbying year in at least a decade. Challenged by President Bush's determination to reduce the deficit and pay for a possible war by cutting domestic spending programs from the 2004 budget, public broadcasters face the disruption of longtime spending plans and resistance to new proposals.

The fight is further complicated because many Republicans harbor barely concealed hostility toward public broadcasting for what they consider a pronounced liberal, even Democratic bias.

"Public broadcasters this year face the broadest and most complex policy agenda we've ever faced," says John Lawson, president of Association for Public Television Stations (APTS).

Priorities for stations include:

  • Defending the appropriations process that secures federal funding two years in advance.
  • Preserving Commerce Department funding for digital conversion.
  • Securing new funds from Education and Agriculture Departments for distance learning and rural digital conversion.
  • Influencing possible legislation reauthorizing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

The reauthorization fight likely will include an examination of perceived commercialization of public broadcasting brought on by noncommercial stations' fundraising demands.

The lobbying campaign begins in earnest next week, when roughly 2,000 station managers and directors from hundreds of public TV stations arrive in Washington to make their case. Also, a newly hired lobbying firm will soon make a pitch for millions in federal higher-education funds that would help digital stations provide distance learning, workforce training and other new services.

Heading the agenda will be preservation of a budget-authorization process that secures public stations' funding two years in advance.

Although the advance funding isn't unique to public stations, Lawson insists that it is uniquely important to public broadcasters. Advance funding is viewed as one way to insulate stations from political attacks and preserve programming independence.

President Bush has called for eliminating most advance federal funds as a way to gain more flexibility over the entire budget. But Lawson says the process should be preserved to ensure that stations' editorial independence isn't compromised by threatened budget cuts.

Lawson says the second priority will be defending the Commerce Department's DTV-conversion funding.

All public TV stations are required to offer a digital signal beginning May 1. "Just as our stations are in a final push to meet a federal mandate," he complains, "the government wants to withhold the matching funds needed to help us comply."