Bush budget would hit public television hard

If federal funding were reduced by the 25 percent recently proposed by President Bush, public television stations would be forced to reduce service or even shut down operations, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) said last week.

In its proposed 2008 budget to Congress, the Bush administration cut federal funding for public broadcasting by about $145 million. This includes funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).

The GAO study, called "Telecommunications: Issues Related to the Structure and Funding of Public Television," reviewed revenue, membership and programming data for all public television licensees. Investigators also interviewed officials from 54 of public television's 173 licensees, CPB, PBS, federal agencies, and program producers for commercial and public television.

The GAO concluded that an alternative source of funds doesn't exist to fill the void that would be left if federal funding were reduced or eliminated. It also found that substantial growth of nonfederal funding for public television stations "appears unlikely."

In addition, the study said the benefits that public television sometimes receives from business ventures associated with its programs are "infrequent and do not generate significant revenue."

In interviews, 30 of the 54 public TV stations warned that cuts in federal funding "could lead to a reduction in staff, local programming or services," and 11 small stations said the cuts could lead to their shutting down.

"According to many licensees, corporate consolidation and an increased focus on advertising among businesses have made garnering underwriting support increasingly difficult," the report said.

"Public television does not have the financial resources to invest heavily in the cost of program production to secure a larger share of any resulting back-end revenues," the GAO study said. "Moreover, the sale of merchandise associated with a program generally returns a small percentage of the retail price to the program's producer and investors, as is also true commercial television programs."