Remember all the news stories a few months ago saying Big Bird could be headed for moth balls and the lights of small public television stations might be darkened forever -- all because of Newt Gingrich and his call for Congress to "zero out" federal funding for PBS?
Well, the immediate threat of such dire developments has passed. While the public television community is not about to declare total victory, PBS president Ervin S. Duggan said yesterday it is winning the war to keep federal dollars flowing.
"We are feeling good about the ultimate survival of public television," Duggan told television critics in Los Angeles. "We believe that our representatives in Congress have responded to the great outpouring of public support. . . . And we believe that the flexibility shown by members of Congress, who may have been skeptical and even hostile, is admirable."
Duggan was referring to budget proposals now making their way through Congress with little opposition from Gingrich, who has backed away from his January statement that no more federal money should go to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which funds PBS.
As it now stands, CPB will definitely be federally funded through the fiscal year of 1997, Duggan said.
The House Appropriations Committee earlier this month approved $240 million in funding for 1998. The Senate has not yet voted on appropriations.
Congress is not giving CPB all the money it wants. For 1996, it wanted $312 million but got only $275 million. For 1997, it sought $315 million and received $260 million.
"We do continue to face serious challenges in the atmosphere of declining funding," Duggan said.
In an effort to make do with fewer federal dollars, Duggan said PBS is seeking partnerships with commercial enterprises, like Ted Turner's home video operation, to market PBS videocassettes. He also said PBS is trying to downsize without layoffs.
If Congress eventually does eliminate all taxpayer funding to PBS, Duggan thinks a public trust should be set up to fund public television. He said the money could come from such non-tax sources as a transaction fee charged broadcasters when they buy and sell commercial television stations.
Duggan's session with the critics was not entirely free of political controversy. He announced the launch of an animated series called "Adventures From the Book of Virtues," based on the best seller "The Book of Virtues" by William Bennett, the conservative former secretary of education.
Duggan denied that the series, which is scheduled to debut in 1996, is a concession to conservatives in Congress. "We are not buying Bill Bennett's opinions," he said. "The series is not political at all."