A House subcommittee voted yesterday to sharply reduce the federal government's financial support for public broadcasting, including eliminating taxpayer funds that help underwrite such popular children's educational programs as "Sesame Street," "Reading Rainbow," "Arthur" and "Postcards From Buster."
In addition, the subcommittee acted to eliminate within two years all federal money for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting -- which passes federal funds to public broadcasters -- starting with a 25 percent reduction in CPB's budget for next year, from $400 million to $300 million.
In all, the cuts would represent the most drastic cutback of public broadcasting since Congress created the nonprofit CPB in 1967. The CPB funds are particularly important for small TV and radio stations and account for about 15 percent of the public broadcasting industry's total revenue.
Expressing alarm, public broadcasters and their supporters in Congress interpreted the move as an escalation of a Republican-led campaign against a perceived liberal bias in their programming. That effort was initiated by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's own chairman, Kenneth Y. Tomlinson.
"Americans overwhelmingly see public broadcasting as an unbiased information source," Rep. David Obey (Wis.), the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, said in a statement. "Perhaps that's what the GOP finds so offensive about it. Republican leaders are trying to bring every facet of the federal government under their control. . . . Now they are trying to put their ideological stamp on public broadcasting."
But the Republican chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services, and education asserted that the panel was simply making choices among various worthy government programs, and that no political message was intended.
The subcommittee's action, which came on a voice vote, doesn't necessarily put Big Bird on the Endangered Species List. House members could restore funding as the appropriations bill moves along or, more likely, when the House and Senate meet to reconcile budget legislation later this year. The Senate has traditionally been a stronger ally of public broadcasting than the House, whose former speaker, Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), waged a high-profile but ultimately unsuccessful campaign to "zero out" funding for the CPB a decade ago.
The cuts nevertheless surprised people in public broadcasting. In his budget sent to Congress in February, President Bush had recommended reducing CPB's budget only slightly.
Several denounced the decision by the panel, which has 10 Republicans and seven Democrats, as payback by a Republican-dominated House after years of complaints from conservatives who see liberal bias in programs carried by the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio. Broadcasters noted, for example, that the 25 percent cutback in next year's CPB budget was a rollback of money that Congress had promised in 2004.
PBS, in particular, drew harsh criticism in December from the Bush administration for a "Postcards From Buster" episode in which Buster, an animated rabbit, "visited" two families in Vermont headed by lesbians. And programming on both PBS and NPR has come under fire in recent months from Tomlinson, the Republican chairman of the CPB, who has pushed for greater "balance" on the public airwaves.
A spokeswoman for NPR, Andi Sporkin, directly blamed Tomlinson for yesterday's action, saying, "We've never been sure of Mr. Tomlinson's intent but, with this news, we might be seeing his effect."
Tomlinson did not return calls seeking comment. In a statement, he said, "Obviously, we are concerned [by the cuts], and we will be joining with our colleagues in the public broadcasting community to make the case for a higher level of funding as the appropriations measure makes its way through Congress."
John Lawson, the president of the Association of Public Television Stations, a Washington-based group that lobbies for public broadcasters, called the subcommittee's action "at least malicious wounding, if not outright attempted murder, of public broadcasting in America." He added, "This action could deprive tens of millions of American children of commercial-free educational programming."
Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), the subcommittee's chairman, said the cuts had nothing to do with dissatisfaction over public radio or TV programs. "It's pretty simple," he said in an interview. "The thinking was, there's not enough money for everything. There are 'must-do,' 'need-to-do' and 'nice-to-do' programs that we have to pay for. [Public broadcasting] is somewhere between a 'need-to-do' and a 'nice-to-do.' "
The subcommittee had to decide, he said, on cutting money for public broadcasting or cutting college grants, special education, worker retraining and health care programs. "No one's out to get" public broadcasting, Regula said. "It's not punitive in any way."
In fact, none of the Republican members of the subcommittee publicly denounced public radio or TV funding at yesterday's markup. Public broadcasting drew supportive statements from Obey and Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.).
Regula suggested public stations could "make do" without federal money by getting more funding from private sources, such as contributions from corporations, foundations, and listeners and viewers.
But the loss of $23.4 million in federal funds for children's educational shows -- which PBS calls its "Ready to Learn" programs -- could mean the elimination of these programs, said an official at Alexandria-based PBS who asked not to be named because the network still hopes to regain the funding. PBS's revenue totaled $333 million in fiscal year 2004.
The Ready to Learn group includes "Sesame Street," "Dragontales," "Clifford" and "Arthur," among others.
The House measure also cuts support for a variety of smaller projects, such as a $39.6 million public TV satellite distribution network and a $39.4 million program that helps public stations update their analog TV signals to digital format.
Small public radio stations, particularly those in rural areas and those serving minority audiences, may be the most vulnerable to federal cuts because they currently operate on shoestring budgets.
"This could literally put us out of business," said Paul Stankavich, president and general manager of the Alaska Public Radio Network, an alliance of 26 stations in the state that create and share news programming. "Almost all of us are down to the bone right now. If we lost 5 or 10 percent of our budgets in one fell swoop, we could end up being just a repeater service" for national news, with no funds to produce local content.
Stankavich, who also runs a public radio and TV station in Anchorage, said public radio is "an important source of news in urban areas, but it's life-critical in rural areas," especially in far-flung parts of Alaska unserved by any other broadcast medium.