The squeeze on Big Bird (cont.)

Melissa Maynard
March 4, 2010

All of this is happening at a time when a number of other conversations and transitions are taking place in the world of public media. Public broadcasting by its very nature isn't supposed to compete with commercial media; the idea is that public support enables forms of media that provide a clear public good but couldn't thrive on their own. Still, adapting to a media landscape that is increasingly multi-platform and high-tech is critical to public media's ability to carry out its mission and remain relevant. "We're asking a lot of public broadcasters at a time when they're less and less well-funded," says Ellen Goodman, a law professor at Rutgers School of Law and expert on public media. "On the other hand, public media hasn't always done a good job at articulating its mission and value, and is being forced to make a case for itself now in a way that should ultimately help clarify that mission."

Pavelko says that Pennsylvania's stations were originally shocked by the governor's proposal to drop the state's funding commitment to public television from 7.9 million to zero without warning - and assumed that it was being used as a bargaining chip. "Funding had gone up and down with the fortunes of the Commonwealth, but never before had a governor proposed eliminating all funding," she says. It soon became clear that the governor's office was serious about the proposal, however, and funding for public television became a topic of debate at public hearings about the budget and throughout the state's 100-day budget impasse. "We came away feeling well regarded," says Pavelko, "but also recognizing that we did not measure up as highly as we thought we did against things like lease protection and social services in general."

Some in the public broadcasting world are hoping the national broadband plan that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will present to Congress later this month will have positive implications for their fiscal futures. One of the problems the plan seeks to address is a projected shortage of certain frequencies of broadcast spectrum necessary for 3G mobile devices such as iPhones. The FCC has signaled that one component of the plan will involve the opportunity for broadcasters to relinquish a portion of their spectrum in return for some form of financial compensation. Trading spectrum for financial compensation is a tempting prospect for cash-strapped public stations and networks, but also one that might diminish their position in the media landscape down the road.

Wick Rowland, president of Colorado Public Television, says he is leery of any spectrum exchange. "You don't sell real estate if at all possible, and spectrum is beachfront property for us in the digital landscape," he says. But Rowland isn't closing the door entirely. "At some level, we can all be bought," he acknowledges. "Make the price high enough and the grants large enough and even I might change my tune about the sacrosanctness of my megabits."

WITF's Pavelko is more optimistic. She believes that mobile broadband devices are the future and is willing to listen carefully to any proposals that would put her station on better fiscal footing while also contributing to national broadband goals. "The question," she adds, "is will the compensation be adequate to position public television with the capital they need to survive and thrive in the broadband age."

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