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PBS Controversy: The Bottom Line

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Public broadcasting has been under siege. A radical-Right chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) trying to FOXify PBS, a slash and burn witchhunt by GOP House appropriators to gut CPB’s budget, and the announcement this week of a former Republican party chairperson with no pubcasting experience as the new top executive at CPB. Here’s what’s really happening.

SHORT TERM: GOP legislators tried to cut approx $200 million, or half of CPB’s budget, but an amendment to the House appropriations bill offered by Reps. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.) and James A. Leach (R-Iowa) reduced the cut to $100 million and restored funding for children’s programming. The amendment passed 284-140 because phones were ringing off the hook all week from millions of outraged pubcast supporters and real conservatives (as opposed to lock-step DeLay radicals) understanding the importance of Big Bird, Clifford and Elmo.

Now the House bill with a 25% funding cut goes to Senate appropriations, where deliberation begins in July and support for CPB is strong. It is expected that with a push from constituents full funding will pass through the Senate and the dogfight will happen in House-Senate conference committee -- a closed door horse trading affair to take place in early Fall. At the end of the day, the final cut will depend on how much pressure pubcast supporters can exert on Senators so they go into conference committee battle with the required political will.

LONG TERM: We’re in this mess because public broadcasting policy is fundamentally flawed. The annual appropriation from Congress, the appointment of CPB board members by the President, increased dependence on corporate underwriters and other structures ensure that the public broadcasting will remain the victim of – rather than be insulated from – political and commercial pressures.

It is time for public broadcasting supporters to rally behind a slate of long term proposals to increase and insulate funding from commercial pressures and the political winds of Washington. A corporate user fee for broadcast spectrum, tax on advertising revenue for broadcasters, and a tax on digital TV manufacturers are a few of the policies that are on the table and must be refined and advanced.

We must focus on long term solutions at the same time that we're fighting rear guard battles or we will end up having the scenario play out year after year. And to win in the long term, we must increase public participation in the debate, and ratchet up pressure on Congress such that we’re impossible to ignore.

Keep it tuned here for a timeline of the controversy and the latest from the trenches.

Click here for "Public Broadcasting 101" with all the basics.