PA governor's proposed budget eliminates public TV funding

by Tim Schooley, Pittsburgh Business Times

Amid Gov. Ed Rendell’s new budget for the 2009-2010 fiscal year, one budget cut certainly wasn’t broadcasted: the elimination of all state funding for the Pennsylvania Public Television Network.

Last year, according to press materials issued along with the governor’s budget proposal, PPTN had $12.3 million in state funding. Rendell’s budget proposes eliminating that funding and transferring PPTN’s infrastructure responsibilities to the state Office of Administration.

PPTN used the funding for its own operations and to allocate to eight public television stations throughout the state. According to the PPTN’s 2007 annual report, the most recent available, the agency distributed more than $8.9 million to its member stations statewide that year.

PPTN Chairman Tony May said the allocation was reduced to $7.9 million last year, but still represented approximately $1 million in grant funding to each of Pennsylvania’s eight public stations, including WQED Multimedia, which serves the Pittsburgh region.

“I think it’s a serious problem for all stations,” May said of the governor’s budget proposal.

While Pennsylvania’s public stations receive only about 10 percent of their funding from the state, May said, the grants play a key role in leveraging matching funds from the federal government and other sources. With other stations already cutting back, May expects the cuts will hamper WQED’s On Q program, a daily half-hour news magazine that he described as the biggest daily program in the state.

May said the state has been scaling down its funding for PPTN as part of its effort to shift its programming onto the Internet. But the budget elimination of grant funding for the state’s public television stations was not expected.

“The cuts on station grants comes as a surprise,” he said.

Rendell spokesman Chuck Ardo described the cuts as regrettable but necessary.

“It’s among the painful cuts that we had to make,” he said. “The simple reality is we had to make some very difficult choices between funding programs that were worthwhile but not affecting the health, safety and welfare of Pennsylvanians as opposed to programs that do.”

WQED Multimedia President and CEO George Miles offered a limited comment by voice mail in response to the situation.

“We all are tightening our belts around the state,” he said. “We’ll see how this all plays out.”

He said he doesn’t think the total funding elimination would be part of the final budget package to be approved.

The state is just one of its funding sources for WQED, which has its own revenue streams and fund-raising efforts, as well as financial support from the federal Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Dan Cohen, an O’Hara-based attorney who follows broadcasting as part of his work representing the city and other municipalities in their cable franchise agreements, said the potential elimination of state funding as “a significant hit for these public television stations.”

He expects local programming to continue to suffer as a result.

“Recognizing that public television is not a core service of government, it continues both an industry and regulatory trend away from local and community-based programming,” he said.

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