The president of the Association of Public Television Stations says the financial outlook for his stations is strong thanks, in part, to funding from a Republican-controlled Congress and contributions from a growing number of states. He also talks about his problems with the FCC incentive auction and subsequent repacking of the TV band and why free, universal broadcasting — in the highest possible picture quality — must remain a cornerstone of public media.
Now deep in his fifth year as president of the Association of Public Television Stations, Patrick Butler is feeling good about the state of public TV these days. The Republican Congress is funding stations at a healthy level and more and more states are contributing significantly, even ones headed by conservative governors that previously had been hostile to public TV.
That Butler has been build able to build a rapport with the Republicans holding the purse strings may have something to do with his own political credentials. He was an aide to Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) and a speechwriter for President Ford. President Reagan appointed him to serve on the National Council on the Humanities.
During his long and varied Washington-centric career, he also applied his political prowess on behalf of the two commercial media powers-that-were — Times Mirror, when it owned the Los Angeles Times and a string of TV stations, and The Washington Post Co.
In this interview with TVNewsCheck Editor Harry A. Jessell, Butler talks about the current goodwill toward public television among funders, his problems with the FCC incentive auction and subsequent repacking of the TV band and why free, universal broadcasting — in the highest possible picture quality — must remain a cornerstone of public media.
An edited transcript:
What’s the prevailing attitude toward pubic television on Capitol Hill these days?
The approval rating for public television is growing steadily and across partisan lines. We are very encouraged by the support that we are getting. The House and Senate appropriations committees have both proposed $445 million for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for the next funding cycle. We are very grateful for that and especially grateful for the fact that this is a bipartisan initiative. That’s exactly the way we want things to work.
Why am I surprised by that? It’s a Republican Congress.
Well it is. We have had our challenges with some Republicans over the years, but we have made a good case, I think, that public television is really in the public service business, that we’re dedicated to education and public safety and civic leadership and that we use TV and broadband and other platforms as the means of performing these public services. We also perform them in a very high-quality, low-cost way, which appeals to some of our more conservative friends. We are making a sufficiently good case in sufficiently large numbers now that our situation has improved considerably in the last four or five years.
Who are your allies on the Republican side?
We start with the chairmen of both the House and Senate appropriations committees. Hal Rogers of Kentucky and Thad Cochran of Mississippi are both great friends of public television. We just had the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee under Lamar Alexander and [Ranking Democrat] Patty Murray propose a bill that’s about to get voted on the Senate floor that preserves our Ready To Learn Program, which is for early childhood education.
How are you doing on the state level? Do you have a count on the number of states funding public TV?
Yes. Overall, roughly 35 states and that’s fluctuating a little bit because a few more are beginning to add funding again after cutting it off during the recession. About 35 states collectively give us about $200 million.
Overall, let’s tackle one of the big issue facing commercial and noncommercial broadcasting alike — the FCC incentive auction. Is that a net positive or a net negative for the public television station community?
It remains to be seen. We think a very small number of our stations will decide in the end to offer their spectrum in the auctions and just go out of business. We expect that a few more, maybe several more, will decide to opt for the channel-sharing option.
We don’t know exactly how many that is going to be yet, but the overwhelming number of our stations are just hoping to get through this disruption in their business with the repacking and such and get back to concentrating on providing good service for their markets.
We have had a considerable disagreement with the FCC over the issue of trying to insure that at the end of the auctions there is no unserved area for public television. There is a 63-year history of the FCC reserving spectrum for noncommercial educational stations and the commission has decided apparently that those 63 years of precedent do not outweigh their goal of taking as much spectrum as they can and repurposing it for the benefit of the wireless industry. We have got a profound disagreement with them about that.
But this is a voluntary auction.
Yes, it is.
So all your stations have to do is decide to hang on to their spectrum.
Well, most of them are going to do that as I have said, but what we are concerned about is that there may be state licensees or university licensees whose actual decision makers are far removed from the actual station operations. I mean the station general manager would certainly want to continue operating, but the people who actually hold the license may decide that there are other more compelling uses for the proceeds that they might get from the spectrum auctions that they can use for other purposes.
But why is that an FCC problem? That’s your problem — to convince these boards not to sell their spectrum.
We have done a good job of that, but it’s the FCC’s own policy over the last six decades that they will preserve noncommercial educational spectrum for noncommercial educational purposes. They have now decided that they are not going to preserve it for those purposes, that if stations want to go into the auction they can and that the viewers they serve will be at some risk.
So, you would prefer that the FCC tell public TV stations that they cannot play in the auction?
No, not that you can’t play, just to make sure that at the end of the day, there is spectrum available in every market so that a noncommercial, educational channel can operate.
Isn’t the idea that educational television has to be broadcast an archaic one? Why can’t it be delivered via cable, via broadband? Why does it have to be over the air?
It can be delivered by all kinds of means, by cable, by broadband and so forth. The fact, however, is only over broadcast are these services going to be available for free to everybody every day and there are still a great many millions of Americans who take their television over the air. We have found that particularly in remote areas and among minority audiences.
Thirty-two million preschool kids are benefiting from Sesame Street and the other educational children’s programming that we provide every month, and there are reams of independent research that show that our public television early childhood programming is helping to narrow the achievement gap between children from low-income families and their more affluent peers. That’s something that actually works and that has worked for a very long time. You say, well why don’t they just go on cable TV. Well, a lot of them can’t afford to go on cable TV. Why don’t they just go on broadband then? Well, they don’t have broadband. We are providing, again, the universal service that Congress intended that we provide.
I know you have been active in the formulating the reverse auction rules. If you could change one thing in those rules, what would it be?
I have just told you the biggest thing I would change is making sure that there is this service available at the end of the auction, but we have also been working very well with the FCC, I might say, on issues regarding our being reimbursed for the transition expenses and our ability to use our translators for a longer period of time after this transition until some wireless provider decides that he or she wants to make the most of this spectrum in a remote market and so forth.
We have been trying very hard to make sure that this spectrum auction succeeds. We have worked, for example, with the folks at CTIA on a channel-sharing pilot in Southern California that demonstrated that two stations could both could offer an HD signal and some SD signals within a channel-sharing arrangement. We have also created a channel-sharing model agreement that gives our stations — and other stations that might want to partner with us — a template for how a channel-sharing arrangement might succeed.
Is there any reason why those channel-sharing agreements cannot be be with a commercial broadcaster?
They could be and we have contemplated that.
So there would be no problem there.
No. That’s right.
Is it important that in a channel-share arrangement that the public stations maintain service in high definition?
SD is OK, but HD is the preferable transmission type now. As we get into the ATSC 3.0 standard and Ultra HD and so forth, we want our viewers to be able to have the same kind of quality picture and sound and services that everybody else has. So we are not willing to be the sort of second-class citizens in television.
Well what about 3.0? A lot of commercial broadcasters are pushing it, but it comes with a lot of cost, a lot of questions about the transition.
We are supporting it and we believe that it could be very helpful to us when fully implemented and in pursuing the public service mission that I have described and in making us much more adaptable and mobile and versatile. We are hopeful that the ATSC standard might be synced up with the repacking transition so that our viewers and our stations don’t have to go through two transitions and we can make all this one transition. Now I am not sure that’s going to work, but that is our hope.
Are you working with commercial broadcasters in trying to get more money from Congress for the repack?
Yes. APTS was instrumental in getting an additional $750 million from Congress for these transition costs. The Senate wanted to provide the broadcasting industry with $1 billion and we convinced the House that that was not going to be enough.
I don’t know if that’s going to be enough money either and so we agree with our friends at NAB, for example, that a larger amount of money may ultimately be necessary. With respect to the timing, I don’t think anybody, including the FCC, thinks that this 39-month window is actually going to be enough to get everybody repacked and fully transitioned from start to finish. I don’t want to put words in the FCC’s mouth, but it may well be that it would come with us to Congress at the appropriate time and ask for an extension of that time.
Let’s talk about your organization. How is it doing financially? I know it relies primarily on dues. With all the consolidation, is that a model for supporting the association going forward?
Oh sure. We have been fortunate to experience in the last four or five years our membership growing from a little less than 70% of public television stations to about 80% and we have also added additional revenue streams from the Public Media Summit that we have inaugurated as a replacement for the old Capitol Hill Day that we did for years here.
The Public Media Summit is a full-fledged sort of strategic planning conference for the public television industry and for our friends in public radio as well. We have found that the registration for the summit has gone up considerably from the days of the Capitol Hill Day and that we have been able to attract a new universe of sponsors and vendors and so forth who are providing considerable new revenue for our association. We have also got many new associate members, people who are just interested in helping our industry and our system succeed. And so I think our revenue picture has brightened considerably over the last few years and our balance sheet is stronger than it has ever been.
Now what about you? In your Summit speech in February you said you had made a five-year commitment to the association you and that’s running out. Are you negotiating a new contract?
I actually didn’t have a contract. I made a commitment for five years and I am sort of taking things as they come beyond that and we will see what happens with going further. I have certainly enjoyed these five years and I hope I have made a little positive difference to the association and for the industry. If things do develop that then I stay for a while longer, nobody would be happier than I.