In a hearing with as many contradictions and subplots as a mini-series, a House subcommittee Thursday began considering the politically charged prospect of abolishing taxpayer support of public television.
At the center of the fight is the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the $285 million in federal funds it receives. The CPB, which has helped underwrite such shows as “Sesame Street,” “Barney” and “Frontline,” has become a prominent target in the Republican-led effort to trim the budget.
But by the end of the seven-hour hearing, no clear answers emerged.
Supporters called federal funding a “good investment,” pointing out that for every one dollar of public money, five dollars in private funds are raised. They also insist that public broadcasting provides services - such as continuing education - that are not available elsewhere.
“Waste and financial incompetence are not the problem in public broadcasting,” said Richard Carlson, president and CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. “We cannot be criticized as poor custodians of the taxpayers’ interest.”
Actor Lavar Burton, who appears on PBS’s “Reading Rainbow” as well as commercial TV, said public TV fills a void that commercial broadcasts will not fill if funding is lost.
“Commercial TV cannot, does not, and will not do what public TV tries to do,” he said. “It is the only place parents can rest assured their children will be introduced to their numbers and the alphabet without somebody trying to sell them something.”
Carlson noted that federal funds make up only 14 percent of the total budget for public television and radio - a network of more than 1,000 stations that reaches every corner of the country.
If funding is abolished, said Henry Cauthen, CPB board chairman and president of South Carolina educational TV, 87 of the network’s 350 TV stations nationwide would probably “go black.” The majority of those would be smaller stations in poor, rural areas already underserved by cable and broadcast stations.
Despite those predictions, efforts to “zero out” federal funding for public broadcasting is gaining currency among conservatives who claim programming on public TV and radio carries a liberal slant, serves an elitist audience, and forces Americans to pay for viewpoints they oppose.
They also insist that many of the most popular shows, such as “Barney” and “Sesame Street” are lucrative and would easily find a place in commercial TV.
“Sesame Street’s gross merchandising revenue is comparable to that of the National Hockey League,” said Media Research Center chairman L. Brent Bozell.
Public television, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., told the subcommittee, is “a subsidy for America’s affluent, allowing them to view their favorite opera or ballet, or hear trendy, politically correct commentators.”
That contention was angrily denied by National Public Radio President Delano E. Lewis.
“The public radio audience is a broad and diverse cross-section of Americans - not merely the cultural elite. I take offense with anybody who says that, it’s just not true,” he said, banging his fist on the table.
Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., used replicas of the “Sesame Street” stars Bert and Ernie to deride the Republicans.
“Make no mistake about it, this debate is about Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch and Barney and Kermit and the new Republican majority that would put them on the chopping block,” Lowey said.
“Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood is much more popular than Gingrich’s, ‘Sesame Street’ is a far healthier environment for children than Capitol Hill and the Muppets are far more popular than this Congress.”
The hearing also elicited charges that some public TV stations are breaking federal law by asking viewers to oppose efforts to slash funding. Federal law, they say, prohibits the use of federal funds for lobbying. Some stations have been running announcements prior to popular shows saying that the show might be taken off the air without federal support.
Attorneys at the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates broadcasters, have said public broadcasters may air such announcements under communications law.
But House Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Livingston, R-La., said they could violate a labor law prohibiting use of federal money for influencing legislation in Congress. He said his office had received 300 to 400 calls a day from messages aired on W-TV in New Orleans.
Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., called Livingston’s charge “ridiculous” and said stations - for many of which federal funding is only a sliver of their total budgets - are well within the law to air the messages.
Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., suggested that Republicans want to abolish funding for public broadcasting because it is popular among wealthy, well-educated Americans.
Such an act, he said, would provide “political cover to savage programs” that benefit the poor and disadvantaged.
By the end of the hearing, no answers could be found and the debate was living up to an earlier prediction by Obey:
“I’m concerned this hearing will be a dialogue of the deaf. People are talking past each other and nothing is accomplished.”