The Northern Virginia Daily's Political Depot

A service for our readers outside the Northern Shenandoah Valley... a sampling of The Daily's political coverage, plus unofficial, 'reporter's notebook' stuff. And occasional dry humor...

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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Bill would cut public TV funds by 25 percent; 1A

Move could sink one of the area’s three stations

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

Bert and Ernie haven’t been evicted from Sesame Street yet, but they might be picking up some real estate guides.

A bill likely to come before the full House of Representatives today would cut 25 percent of federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting next year, and would end funding for a grant program that helps pay for shows like “Sesame Street” and “Clifford the Big Red Dog.”

The cuts could spell the end for one of the region’s three local television stations.

“I can’t guarantee that we’d continue to exist,” said Bert Schmidt, president and general manager of WVPT-TV in Harrisonburg, which serves the valley and a large portion of Central Virginia.

CPB provides some funding for local stations, who then in turn pay entities like the Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio for programming.

If the region loses WVPT, it will lose the only station where public input is the major driver behind programming choices, Schmidt said. Take the controversy over “Postcards from Buster,” a PBS cartoon that had the title character meet a lesbian couple on a trip to Vermont.

“We didn’t air the program here locally, because the community didn’t want that program on the air,” he said. National broadcasters don’t take local values into consideration.

“PBS has no control over us. We answer to our viewers,” he said.

Broadcasters feel the pinch in another way, in the termination of the “Ready To Learn” grants funded through the Department of Education. A number of children’s shows — and the heart of WVPT’s weekday lineup — are produced using the grants.

On the radio side, it’s bad, but it’s not fatal, according to Tom DuVal, the general manger of WMRA, a public radio station based in Harrisonburg with translators as far as Farmville, Winchester and Lexington.

“It’s going to hurt us, but it’s not going to devastate us the way it will public television,” he said.

The funding being discussed isn’t chump change. For WMRA, the 2006 cut would be about $90,000, while WVPT would take a $200,000 hit. If all funding for the CPB goes away, it’ll be a $190,000 loss for the radio station, but a $700,000 hit for the television station, according to DuVal.

State funding was reduced a few years back, Schmidt said. The station is also in the middle of a $9 million, federally mandated conversion to digital broadcasting. WVPT operates on a $3 million annual budget.

The reason for the cut is the massive amount of red ink piling up in Washington, according to the subcommittee that authored the legislation.

“We had to make tough choices by reconciling competing priorities with the resources available,” said Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Ohio.

“Support of programs including the No Child Left Behind Act, health research at the National Institutes of Health, expansion of Community Health Centers and dislocated worker assistance necessitated that we reduce and terminate many programs,” he said.

It’s not really about the money, though, Schmidt said. Rather, it’s about “a fringe group that’s very upset because of some very small issues.”

A small number of Republicans have decided that PBS carries a liberal bias and want to kill it, he said.

“I don’t think anyone truly believes this is a budgeting issue,” Schmidt said.

Locally, Rep. Frank Wolf, R-10th, said through a spokes-man Wednesday that he supports restoring the $100 million to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. A spokes-man for Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-6th, said he had yet to offer a formal comment on the bill.

An amendment to restore funding without adding to the federal deficit is also due to be considered, according to Schmidt.
If the amendment is successful, the pressure is off.

If not, “I’m hoping for us that we’ll be able to turn to our listeners [and say,] ‘We just lost $90,000 in federal funding, Please help us out,’” DuVal said.