Debate on public TV begins


*TC Despite warnings that the survival of small non-commercial TV and radio stations is at stake, Republican congressional leaders sounded determined yesterday to reduce or eliminate federal funding for public broadcasting.

At a budgetary hearing, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston, R-La., said virtually all government programs face fiscal scrutiny and all but essential spending will be cut.

"The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is one such unnecessary program," echoed California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican. "Nice? Yes. Thought-provoking? Yes. Essential? No. Absolutely necessary? Absolutely not."

The federal government is providing about $286 million in 1995 to the CPB, which distributes funds and programming to more than 300 Public Broadcasting System (PBS) TV stations and more than 600 National Public Radio (NPR) stations.

Since this federal funding accounts for only about 14 percent of the public broadcasting budget, House Republicans said the system could be "privatized" and operate without taxpayer support.

However, public broadcasting officials told an Appropriations subcommittee that the federal funds are vital, especially for small stations away from affluent urban audiences.

"For many stations, federal funds make the crucial difference between survival and failure," said Richard Carlson, CPB president.

"The rule of thumb is that the smaller the station, the larger the proportion of federal funds," he said. "In the event of total fund cutoff, the stations that will go dark first will be the smaller ones."

In a separate press conference, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, seemed to step back from his earlier calls for "zeroing out" funding for public broadcasting and provided hope for compromise.

"If the real problem is small rural stations, maybe part of the answer is to give the money directly to small rural stations," he said. "If we are serious about getting to a balanced budget by 2002, everything should be on the table except Social Security.

"My guess is CPB, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, could be privatized and they would actually do very, very well," he said. "Arts and Entertainment [cable channel] is private. C-SPAN is private. CNN is private. ESPN is private. The History Channel is private. There's only one group in America that gets taxpayer money to be on a cable channel."

Subcommittee chairman John Porter, a Republican from Illinois, said the panel would decide within a few weeks whether to cut or eliminate federal funds for CPB.

Some subcommittee Democrats warned that federal cutbacks could jeopardize popular programs such as "Sesame Street" and "Barney."

" 'Mister Rogers Neighborhood' is far more popular than Mr. Gingrich's. 'Sesame Street' is a far healthier environment for children than Capitol Hill," said Democratic Rep. Nita Lowey, of New York. "The Muppets are far more popular than this Congress, and we should think twice before we eliminate them."

Because of lucrative merchandising deals, such programs actually generate revenues for public broadcasting, said Mr. Carlson.

The Children's Television Workshop, producers of "Sesame Street," has spent more than $100 million on programming for public TV over the past five years, making it the single largest non-government source of funds, he said.

Indeed, Republicans argued that such revenues could be used to offset the reduction in federal funds.

"Forbes magazine recently listed Barney, the lovable purple dinosaur, as the third-richest entertainer is America, after Stephen Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey," said Republican Sen. Larry Pressler, of South Dakota, chairman of the Senate committee with oversight over public broadcasting.

" 'Barney' is estimated to gross almost $1 billion a year. 'Sesame Street' is close behind with $800 million."

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