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'Discourse So Rancorous'

Outgoing APTS CEO Butler 'Hopeful' on CPB Funding, Urges Civility

America’s Public Television Stations CEO Patrick Butler is “hopeful” that Senate legislation maintaining funding for PBS will advance over a House FY24 federal funding legislation bill that would zero out that money, he told the APTS Public Media Summit in a farewell address Monday after 13 years leading the association (see 2307210065). Butler plans to retire this year once a replacement is hired (see 2311010050). “I’m hopeful. I can’t say I’m confident, but I am hopeful,” he said after the speech.

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The Senate Appropriations bill enjoys much broader support in that chamber than the zero funding one does in the House, Butler said. He believes PBS funding will be maintained and that Congress will eventually approve a budget, though he also said current negotiations could lead to a temporary government shutdown. “They’ve got to come together eventually,” Butler said.

Butler took the helm of APTS during the Tea Party's ascendancy in 2011, when vocal opposition to public media funding was a major cause on the right. Thursday he said he has never lacked faith that legislators and people of every political persuasion believe that “a modest investment” in public media is a “smart investment in America.” The longest-serving CEO in APTS history, Butler received the organization’s lifetime achievement award Monday. Vice President Kamala Harris, Maryland Gov Wes Moore (D) and FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel delivered prerecorded video tributes to him at Monday’s event.

Public television’s “perennial funding battle” is one of multiple challenges facing the service, Butler told the summit. Broadcasting is constantly losing viewers to streaming, and Netflix 2023 spending on content was four times the amount all public media combined received in revenue, Butler said. He urged public TV stations to embrace innovations such as ATSC 3.0 and AI but also to hold to their mission of universal educational service and to embrace diversity. “We need as much diversity of all kinds as we can get because America’s public media must be profoundly public and comprehensively American,” Butler said.

No one else -- not Netflix, not Amazon, not anybody -- will educate children, or follow the legislature, or protect people in trouble, or chronicle life in hometown America as public television does,” Butler said Monday. The most important service public TV stations can perform is to help the country produce better citizens and civility, he said. “We have reached a point where our divisions are so deep, our discourse so rancorous, our understanding of basic facts so contentious, and our very institutions of government so poorly understood, that our democracy itself seems endangered.”