Senators took turns praising and briefly probing public broadcasters as the Commerce Committee works toward reauthorizing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting -- a markup of the bill is slated for next week.
Concerns about liberal bias on noncommercial TV and radio were raised by Senator Trent Lott (R-Miss.) in his opening statement and by committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) in his initial question.
Lott said that while he has been concerned in the past that CPB funding has been used to "advocate biased and partisan agendas," he said that progress has been made," for which he congratulated the CPB board.
McCain prefaced his question on bias with the observation that PBS had recently added two conservative commentators to its rolls.
All the panelists, which included station GM's, produced Ken Burns and new CPB President Kathleen Cox, said balance and objectivity were important goals.
Burns argued that far from being a "hotbed" of thinking outside the mainstream," local noncommercial stations are "essentially conservative institutions, sometimes criticized as too conservative, too middle of the road." No senator challenged him on the point.
While Burns conceded there have been liberal programming agendas, he argued they have been balanced by others, pointing to William F. Buckely's Firing Line and its decades-long noncom run. As for his programming, Burns said the "triangulation" of history was always a balancing act.
Leave it to Burns to transform a tin cup into a chalice.
In an eloquent pitch for continued funding that was being lauded even before it was through, Burns argued that none of his films could have been made for commercial television, and even if they had been they would have lost an essential quality by being interrupted every eight minutes so viewers could be pitched a half-dozen products. Public broadcasting, he said, "gives us attention and memory amid the cacophony of the marketplace. Without that "duration," he said, "we do not learn, remember or care."
On a more prosaic note, Peter Frid, CEO of New Hampshire Public TV, asked for more CPB board seat assignments for local stations (there are currently two of nine) and supported a proposal being floated to trade an early return of noncom's analog spectrum for a cut of the proceeds from that spectrum's auction.
Frid said his stations could return their analog real estate by 2006 (the FCC is figuring a 2009 date) so long as 1) his stations got full cable carriage of their multicast signals, 2) low-cost converter boxes were available to viewers who could not otherwise afford them, and 3) noncoms got a new revenue stream from the reauctioning of the spectrum.
In addition to the bias issues, chief on the Senatorial questioner's agendas appeared to be education, universal service and the equitable distribution of funds.
CPB does not produce programming, but distributes the 12%-15% of public station funds that come from the federal government.