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Analysis: Is PBS Shooting Other Foot with Canadian Bullet?

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e Public Broadcasting System announced this week a new $40 million block of children's animated programming based on titles by top authors. While the pact is educationally commendable, it could create a quagmire for PBS, which has already reaped Congress' ire by sharing donors' mailing lists with political groups. And this time the U.S. dissenters could include actors. The problem: PBS contracted the programming with a Canadian animation producer, Nelvana. The program block will begin airing in the U.S. in 2000, with at least two of six programs included in the daily schedule for PBS' Kids Ready to Learn Service. PBS has traditionally brought in excellent programming--including "Masterpiece Theatre," "Mystery" and several comedy series--from Great Britain. But for American public TV to announce a major block from Canada at this time is another story, which indeed could be classified as drama. Here's why: The Screen Actors Guild and Directors Guild of America, among other unions, are heavily involved in publicizing and trying to quell "runaway" film and TV production from the U.S. SAG and DGA just a month ago released a joint report stating that "runaway" production cost the U.S. economy $10.3 billion in 1998. The study estimated that runaways--defined as U.S.-developed productions filmed in other countries due to economic incentives--cost actors, directors, and other entertainment-industry workers more than "60,000 full-time equivalent positions in the last three years alone." That number includes 23,500 full-time losses in 1998. Most important to the PBS-Nelvana case, the report confirmed what industry executives have espoused: the vast majority (81% total filming, 90% of movies for TV) of out-of-country production has gone to Canada. The California state legislature is currently considering two tax-incentive bills to limit runaway production. And SAG has said it will seek federal legislation to do the same, before the same Congress which recently called PBS officials on the carpet for sharing donor mailing lists. Some legislators have even called for ending funding for the public TV network. PBS programming is most often sponsored by U.S. corporations, private foundations, the local PBS channels, and federal dollars from the likes of the National Endowment for the Arts. Should some conservative Congressmember realize that a $40 million PBS pact is for Canadian animation, and not for U.S. animators, then prepare to hear the legislator's voice decry the PBS administration. U.S. actors and animators would find it hard to disagree, and PBS--while judging the Canadian deal educationally sound--will find it politically hard to defend. After all, there's no dearth of animation talent in the U.S. Last October, for example, SAG approved a new TV animation agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which represents 108 TV animation producers. That SAG-producer pact called for the guild's voice-over performers to receive a 10% salary increase over three years for TV animation work. Logic would expect VO actors to be upset by the PBS-Nelvana deal, which will not only fatten Canadian coffers, but pull that funding away from U.S. projects which could have been airing on public TV. So it seems that PBS has found itself caught between the rock--of providing quality educational programming--and the hard place of closing a Canadian deal at a time when the U.S. entertainment industry looks askance to the north and Congressional conservatives are searching for reasons to defund the public TV syste

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