Defense Bill Would Abolish BBG Governing Board

Restructuring international broadcasting arm under CEO

A must-pass defense authorization bill that emerged from a House-Senate conference this week included a provision that would restructure the Broadcasting Board of Governors to concentrate power in a new expanded CEO position, according to the conference report.

The bill would eliminate the nine-member board that oversees the Broadcasting Board of Governors and give the CEO new powers. BBG oversees government-backed, nonmilitary international media outlets including VOA, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks.

That would likely mean a name change since the bipartisan broadcasting board of governors is what is being eliminated.

In testimony before Congress last year, the board chair and the CEO of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, both familiar names in broadcasting and cable circles, asked Congress to give the group's CEO position more power and to allow BBG more flexibility to fund its operations. That CEO is John Lansing, former head of CTAM and Scripps Networks. Jeff Shell, chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, is board chair.

On the eve of the release of the conference report, President Obama was sending his new nominee to chair that nine-member BBG oversight board to the Senate.

The bill is expected to get House and Senate votes before Congress' planned exit for all but pro forma sessions at the end of next week.

The House version of the bill contained a provision, which remained essentially intact after the conference, that would "permanently establish the Chief Executive Officer position as head of the BBG...while removing the nine-member bipartisan Board that currently heads the agency."

It would also allow the BBG CEO to "direct appropriated funds and to hire certain personnel...and authorize the CEO to consolidate the current U.S. International broadcasters that receive federal grants as independent non-profit corporations (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks) into one grantee broadcaster, with certain related expanded supervisory roles and authorities vested in the BBG."

The Senate bill had no such provision, but conferees deferred to the House version with an amendment that would tweak it, including eliminating a timing requirement for nominating a BBG CEO, adding a notification requirement for redirection of funds by the CEO, establish an international broadcasting advisory board, presumably to provide some of the functions of the eliminated governing board, and deleting a House provision proposal to abolish the Voice of America as a federal entity and reconstitute it as a non-federal corporation.

The BBG board met Nov. 30 to review audience estimates and do other business. That included reviewing the conference report and, according to BBG, expressing "their enduring support for BBG's unique mission and for the journalistic independence of its networks."

The next board meeting is currently scheduled for March 23, 2017.