NEW YORK — WHEN newly elected US House Speaker Newt Gingrich arrived triumphant on Capitol Hill in January, one of the first things he pledged to do was knock public broadcasting out of the federal arena.
"They still don't realize the appropriation is gone, the game is over," Mr. Gingrich gloated, feeding the giddiness of conservatives who for decades have fumed about Big Bird on the federal dole.
The board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) met yesterday and approved cuts in grants to member stations in response to federal trims, but it also began to plan for a stronger future.
What Gingrich and his beltway revolutionaries didn't anticipate was the reaction of farmers, teachers, and store owners nationwide. Polls show the vast majority of Americans strongly support public broadcasting, and they let the speaker and his colleagues know it.
"The people who contribute here are very, very loyal," says Don Chicots, executive director of public broadcasting in South Dakota, where Sen. Larry Pressler's (R) vocal opposition earned him a drop in the polls and a bumper sticker that read: "Keep Public TV, Privatize Pressler."
After the burst of grass-roots support that took even staunch supporters by surprise, the CPB emerged from the budget battle with its federal funding for the next two years trimmed, but not gone. Many politicians who once blasted it as nothing more than a federally funded plaything of the liberal elite have been chastened. And public broadcasting executives have emerged from this uncertain period determined to ensure that the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) not only survives but is strengthened.
"There's a lot more opportunity in chaos than there is in anything else," says Michael Shoenfeld, CPB's senior vice president for communications. "If nothing happens and we just muddle along, we'll become more vulnerable next year and the year after."
CPB executives have commissioned studies and convened task forces to examine inefficiencies within PBS and to recommend alternative funding sources. They are working with supporters and critics in Congress to devise new funding mechanisms. Ideas range from the development of a trust fund, to increasing the level of underwriting, to swapping valuable VHF stations for less-expensive UHF alternatives.
"Fortunately, public broadcasting is beginning to look at realistic options for survival in a budget-deficit-conscious world," says Senator Pressler, who is now proposing to auction off channels in the broadcast spectrum and use some of the profits to create a public broadcasting trust fund.
But it has also become clear to public-broadcasting executives that coping with the current funding crisis and transitioning to a more stable future will require some difficult adjustments. Some public TV and radio stations that duplicate services in a given area may have to merge or shut down, others will have to limit local programming, and all will probably have to cut staffs further.
"The die is cast," says Scott Simon, host of National Public Radio's Weekend Edition. "Those of us in public broadcasting have to accept what's staring us in the face."
Yesterday, the CPB board of directors not only reduced its grants to member stations, it also approved the creation of a fund to help them cope with the drop in income. Congress had originally appropriated $312 million for this fiscal year, but in a legislative move known as a rescission, the new Republican majority trimmed it to $275 million.
"To the extent that we can," says Mr. Shoenfeld, "we want to be sure that small rural stations and minority stations that are more dependent on the federal funds are more insulated. But you can't protect everybody." The impact will be more severe over the next two years, he says, when the funding could sink to $240 million if Republicans have their way.
Federal funds make up only about 14 percent of the money that goes to public broadcasting, which was estimated to be a $1.8 billion industry in 1993. The largest slice of the budget comes from 6.6 million individuals who contributed $391 million (22 percent) of public broadcasting's income. Business contributions ranked second, at 17 percent, and state governments came in third, giving 14 percent. The rest of the support came from colleges and universities, one-time federal grants, local governments, and annual on-air auctions.
"This is a public/private partnership," says Jeannie Bunton, CPB's press secretary. "When $1 invested turns into $5 in matching funds, you realize that 14 percent is responsible for the other 86 percent. It's similar to that first cup of water you need to prime a pump."
But many of PBS's critics say any federal support is too much.
"It's the plaything of the liberal, radical left," says Reed Irvine, the founder of Accuracy in Media, a nonprofit research group. He says he is disappointed that Gingrich and his colleagues failed to keep their pledge to cut all federal funds to PBS.
Mr. Irvine and other conservatives have long criticized PBS for what they say is a distinctly liberal bias in its programming. A poll commissioned by CPB indicates that most do not share his view.
When asked whether PBS programming is "reasonably balanced ... neither too conservative nor too liberal," 87 percent of Democrats, 83 percent of independents, and 79 percent of Republicans polled agreed.
Other conservatives say the issue is not bias in programming but government involvement in what they say is essentially a business venture.
"I don't believe the federal government should be in the business of broadcasting," says Jim Glassman, a conservative political analyst who hosts CNN's "Capital Gang." "I would argue that money left in the hands of the public would be better spent," he says.
Mr. Glassman says that cable channels like the Arts and Entertainment Network, the Discovery Channel, and C-Span already provide the kind of cultural programming for which PBS is known.
"Cable is not broadcasting, it's narrow casting by design," Mr. Simon says, noting that only 65 percent of US households have cable TV. "You also have to pay for cable.... Anybody can tune in to public broadcasting, whether they agree or disagree with it."
Public broadcasting's critics suggest that federal money could be easily replaced, either with private funds, more underwriting, or sales of PBS-related merchandise.
But a study done by the New York investment bank Lehman Brothers found that was overly optimistic. The study, commissioned by CPB at the request of the House telecommunications subcommittee, analyzed possible new sources of income and savings in public broadcasting and concluded that no combination of the two could fully replace the current appropriation.
Despite the challenges, supporters of PBS are confident it will survive. A recent Roper survey even found that, next to national defense and law enforcement, Americans think public broadcasting gives them the best value for their tax dollar.
"The struggle is to make sure that what survives isn't just a popular brand name that puts on mediocre programming," Simon says. "I think over the next few years we're going to have to struggle to be sure that public broadcasting remains a free, independent, and aggressive source of news and not just a repackager of information."