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Published: Friday, 7/15/2005

PBS fights politics and fund woes

BY ROB OWEN
BLOCL NEWS ALLIANCE

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - PBS may not have a reputation for having the most exciting programming on TV, but behind the scenes, it is a veritable soap opera.

Maintaining its government funding has been an issue for the entirety of PBS' existence, but lately the media company has found itself wandering through a political minefield.

Earlier this year, PBS came under fire for an entirely appropriate episode of children's show Postcards from Buster that visited a household headed by a lesbian couple. Viewers on the right denounced the show as promoting homosexuality (never mind that past episodes included visits to the homes of a Mormon and Orthodox Jewish family that no one saw as proselytizing), while viewers on the left threw up their hands after PBS refused to broadcast the episode.

More recently, Corporation for Public Broadcasting chief Ken Tomlinson mounted a campaign against Bill Moyers, paying an outside consultant, unbeknownst to the CPB board, to investigate Moyers' PBS show Now to look for signs of liberal bias. He also hired lobbyists to try to dissuade Congress from passing legislation that would affect the composition of the CPB board, according to Daily Variety.

CPB oversees government funding for PBS, whose president, Pat Mitchell, said the most recent brouhahas have "elevated public awareness and public interest in public television." Concerned viewers voiced their displeasure to Congress over a 46 percent proposed funding cut, and that appears to have had an impact. This week, a Senate appropriations subcommittee approved a measure to restore that funding; a vote by the full Appropriations Committee is expected today and the entire Senate will vote on the measure later this year.

"The good news is the House vote was really strongly bipartisan," Mitchell said. "I think that's the result of the constituency outcry so we're feeling optimistic that there will be this funding."

Mitchell also addressed other PBS issues:

On Tomlinson's secret investigation of Now: "Very troubling, very troubling. He could have called me and said, 'I've got some concerns here.' There were other ways to do this that are more constructive. But to do secret reports surveying programs which, by the way, we could have provided him a complete list of guests on the Moyers show for free."

On the congressional investigation of Tomlinson's actions: "You take public money, you have to be absolutely accountable for every dime of it."

On charges of bias: "You can't program any media by political equivalency. but we are going to program [PBS] adhering to the statute and principles of balance, which means in any issue we are going to try and provide as many different perspectives as we can. The challenge for us is to be clear so the audience is absolutely clear that when we are expressing an opinion or point of view it's labeled as such."

On encroachment from cable channels that sometimes cover the same territory as PBS shows: "I suggest that maybe Monster Garage is probably not a substitute for Masterpiece Theatre."

On the Buster controversy: "We made the right call given the institution that we are, which is essentially local. A majority of the stations actually played the episode, which I was very pleased to see. They played it, however, on their own time schedule, in the time slot that worked for them, and with community engagement, and that's the way all of our programming should work."



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