On Eve of US House Vote, Public Broadcasters Mull Options
Many have tried alternatives congressional cost-cutters propose
MOTORCYCLE jacket, black turtleneck, jeans -- the only familiar part of Lyle Lovett's appearance is the Texas musician's 10-gallon hairdo, as he takes the stage at KLRU, Austin's public-TV station.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
It's an afternoon rehearsal for ``Austin City Limits'' the acclaimed music program broadcast by 266 public television stations in 300 markets in the United States. Mr. Lovett will wear his customary suit and tie later in the evening, when he tapes the last show of ACL's 20th season - and possibly one of its last ever.
What becomes of ``Austin City Limits,'' and, indeed, of public radio and television, depends on whether Republicans in the House of Representatives prevail in their determination to cut federal funding. A subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee has approved a bill to trim funding by 15 percent next year and 30 percent the following year.
As the issue nears a vote in the full House, possibly tomorrow, politicians and broadcast executives ponder whether public broadcasting could survive through some combination of internal restructuring, relaxed advertising rules, privatization, and stepped-up private contributions. Some executives say they have already explored many of these alternatives, with mixed results.
Rep. John Porter (R) of Illinois, chairman of the House subcommittee that proposed the cuts, calls them ``relatively modest cuts that could be absorbed by CPB.'' He calls himself ``a reliable friend of public broadcasting,'' a characterization shared by public station WTTW in Chicago.
Some budget-cutters suggest that the private sector take over public-TV's functions. Peter Sepp, spokesman for the 300,000-member National Taxpayers Union, says, for example, that the science channels on cable TV might want ``Nova'' and other PBS science programs.
Bill Arhos, executive producer of ``Austin City Limits'' points out as he watches Lovett rehearse that a for-profit version of the show would need a much larger budget to pay artists. The previous night, Lovett sold out a major concert hall. Today, because this is public TV, he's working for the industry equivalent of minimum wage.
The attraction, Lovett explains later, is the opportunity to come closer to re-creating his live performance than he can on other broadcasts. ``They let the artist do his show,'' he says. That is, without commercial interruptions.
Randy Ramey, a stockbroker and public-television executive in Waco, Texas, is concerned about family fare. He argues that commercial TV is driven to sell sensationalism to win market share, which translates into advertiser dollars. ``This notion of children's TV programs being picked up by private broadcasters is nothing but Russian roulette,'' he says.
Mr. Ramey, Arhos, and others in public television scratch their heads over the notion that they cater to an elite audience, as some politicians charge. On the contrary, they say, every week PBS stations entertain 101 million viewers whose demographics match the nation's.
And at bargain rates: Tickets for Lovett's concert cost $18 to $50, for example. Public TV audiences will get to see his performance, plus a year's worth of other programming - from ``Sesame Street'' to ``Wall Street Week`` - for a federal-tax cost of 80 cents per US resident.
Mr. Arhos, who recalls the early days of televising ``hand puppets and origami classes,'' says now KLRU's mix of local and Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) programming occasionally pulls in more viewers than the networks for a given time slot.