The Public Broadcasting Service agreed yesterday to ban its member stations from airing new religious TV programs, but permitted the handful of stations that already carry "sectarian" shows to continue doing so.
The vote by PBS's board was a compromise from a proposed ban on all religious programming. Such a ban would have forced a few stations around the country to give up their PBS affiliation if they continued to broadcast local church services and religious lectures.
Until now, PBS stations have been required to present programming that is noncommercial, nonpartisan and nonsectarian. But the definition of "nonsectarian" programming was always loosely interpreted, and the rule had never been strictly enforced. PBS began reviewing the definition and application of those rules last year in light of the transition to digital TV and with many stations streaming programs over their Web sites. The definition doesn't cover journalistic programs about religion or discussion programs that don't favor a particular religious point of view.
The vote at PBS's headquarters in Arlington was good news for five PBS member stations that carry religious programs. Among them are KBYU in Salt Lake City, which is operated by an affiliate of the Mormon Church; KMBH in Harlingen, Tex., operated by the local Catholic diocese; and WLAE in New Orleans, operated by a Catholic lay organization.
The vote also means that WHUT, operated by Howard University in the District, won't be required to drop its telecasts of "Mass for Shut-Ins," a weekly Catholic Mass that has aired on the station since 1996 and locally in Washington for more than 50 years.
But, warned by PBS of the upcoming review, WHUT put the program's producer, the Archdiocese of Washington, on notice that it would drop the program if the PBS board voted to ban religious programs. The archdiocese then made alternative arrangements, negotiating a contract with WDCW (Channel 50) to pick up the half-hour program on Sunday mornings.
Moving the program, which is broadcast free by WHUT, will be disruptive to viewers, said Susan Gibbs, the archdiocese's spokeswoman, and expensive — the contract with WDCW will cost $60,000 per year.
"I think we were good for WHUT because we brought a committed and dedicated audience to their channel," she said. "It would have been nice for us to continue being there, but I think we were good for them, too." Gibbs was unsure whether the contract could be broken.
WHUT General Manager Jennifer Lawson said yesterday she didn't know where the program would end up. "It's not a question of taking them back," said Lawson, who chaired the PBS committee that recommended the policies adopted by PBS's 27-member board yesterday. "It's my understanding they made a decision to move to Channel 50 because they found some advantages. The decision is for them to make."
PBS's board also voted yesterday to allow PBS stations to air religious programs on digital TV channels and Web sites they operate as long as these channels don't include PBS programs or brand identification. This could open the way for cash-strapped PBS stations to lease unused digital TV channels to religious broadcasters, as station KOCE in Orange County, Calif., has already done.
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