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PBS May Yank Affiliations Over Religious Content

ARLINGTON, VA.: PBS member stations may have to choose between church and state. Reports have emerged that the network board will vote next month on pulling affiliate status from stations that broadcast religious services. While PBS bylaws prohibit the carriage of sectarian programming, member stations have carried services and mass for shut-ins for years. KBDI-TV in Denver has carried Mass for Shut-ins since 1966 every Sunday morning. The Archdiocese of Denver estimates that 20,000 households tune in each week. The church there even goes so far as to feature a Web page for how the digital transition will affect the telecast.

WHUT-TV, the PBS affiliate at Howard University in Washington, D.C., has carried a mass for shut-ins for 13 years. Losing the PBS affiliation would leave the station without a programming line-up that now includes “Sesame Street,” “Nova,” “Masterpiece Theater” and other network staples. The station already notified the Archdiocese of Washington that the telecast would be cancelled, according to The Washington Post. Another station in New Orleans, WLAE-TV, is part-owned by Willwoods Community, a local Catholic organization. Ron Yager, WLAE vice president and general manager told the Post that the station has carried the mass for 25 years without complaint.

“We’ve built an identity around this. People know us for this,” he told the newspaper. “I’m really not totally sure of their reasoning for doing this.”

Though news of the impending vote is widespread across several media outlets, the PBS Web site has no mention of it. While the by-laws call for noncommercial, non partisan and nonsectarian programming, the network’s editorial policy calls for “integrity, quality diversity and local station autonomy.”

“PBS believes that public broadcasting's greatest potential is realized when it serves the unique needs of the local community, and that there are wide variations in local needs and tastes,” the policy states. “No one is better qualified to determine and respond to those local needs than the public television station licensed to that community.”

The issue of religious programming came up as PBS reviewed its membership rules in the year leading up to the digital transition. Jennifer Lawson, general manager of WHUT, also heads the panel that recommended a board vote on religious programming. The told the Post that the intent of the action is for PBS to demonstrate editorial independence.

There is no precise information on how many of the network’s 365 members, licensed to 168 noncommercial organizations, are at risk of losing affiliations should they continue to broadcast religious programming. – Deborah D. McAdams