Public Broadcasting's $20 Billion Pitch

PBS President Pat Mitchell and other advocates for public broadcasting are trumpeting legislation in Congress that would create a huge trust fund—perhaps as much as $20 billion—to provide a ready pool of cash for noncommercial stations as well as libraries and universities.

The trust would be generated from a portion of revenues raised by the federal government's auction of reclaimed TV channels expected in 2008 and other spectrum sales planned in the future. The legislation, dubbed the Digital Opportunities Investment Trust, is sponsored by Rep. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who has fought for years to build a pool of money for public broadcasting free from the political whims and budgetary pressures of Congress.

Interest from the trust fund could be used to help stations develop new educational programming and distance-learning technology as well as for digitizing content in libraries and creating worker training and educational software.

The likelihood Congress will earmark so much money for a socially driven mission at a time of growing deficits and escalating costs of war would appear slim. After all, Congress is still debating whether to commit a much smaller sliver of auction revenue to help TV viewers buy equipment needed to keep their old analog TVs working after stations go all-digital.

A Broader Base

But Colin Crowell, an aide to Markey, says his boss has, for the first time, lined up bipartisan sponsors for the bill, and by joining up with universities and libraries he has a much broader base from which to build grassroots support.

The reasons behind public broadcasters' wish for an independent source of revenue were driven home last week when a House subcommittee cut 2006 funding for public broadcasting by $236 million from last year. Much of the money is expected to be restored by the Senate later, but the budget battle and ongoing political food fight over the GOP's alleged attempt to stamp out liberal programming on PBS has left the government's willingness to support public broadcasting in the future open to doubt.

Even though the trust would not replace the need for annual appropriations from Congress, Mitchell and John Lawson, president of the Association of Public Television Stations, say they are elated by the prospect of a predictable source of funds.

Creating the fund will “provide much needed investment in public service in this country and for helping public broadcasting's digital future plans become public broadcasting's future reality,” Mitchell told the National Press Club recently.

“The Best Shot”

The idea of a public broadcasting trust fund has been a goal of noncommercial stations since President Lyndon Johnson created the public broadcasting service in the 1960s. Says Lawson: “This is the best shot we've had in decades, if not ever.”

Besides public broadcasters, Markey's most important outside ally is Digital Promise, a coalition of technology executives, university officials like retired Sen. Bob Kerry and famous individuals like Star Wars creator George Lucas. Digital Promise has committed itself to developing grassroots and corporate support for the legislation.

Markey's legislation calls for 30% of the proceeds from spectrum auctions to be earmarked for the fund. The TV spectrum sale, which the wireless industry predicts could raise as much as $30 billion, could on its own generate up to $9 billion for the trust. Coupled with future auctions, Digital Promise predicts the fund could grow as large as $20 billion and generate up to $1.5 billion a year in interest for digital-age educational projects. Of that, 21%—or $315 million—would be earmarked specifically for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to dole out to public TV and radio stations annually. Stations also could compete directly for additional trust proceeds.

Digital Promise is pitching the trust fund as the 21st century version of other massive federal investments in society, such as the creation of land-grant universities in the 1800s and the G.I. Bill after World War II.