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PBS Puts Limits on Religious Programming

PBS officials voted June 16 to not allow new religious programming at member stations, but allowed select PBS stations to continue broadcasting their current faith-based line-ups.

The PBS Board of Directors took the action Tuesday after concerns were raised that religious programming could violate the organization's nonsectarian status.

The board unanimously elected to grandfather in the handful of existing shows that are directly religious in nature; the ruling does not affect news shows or documentaries.

"The board has basically voted to insure that the religious programming that stations currently provide and that communities have come to rely on are able to stay on air," said PBS spokesperson Jan McNamara.

Only six of over 350 member stations broadcast religious programming, according to McNamara. At stake for at least three of the stations were long-running Sunday Masses, broadcast mostly to the elderly.

For the last decade, the televised "Mass for Shut-Ins" has aired on Denver's KBDI every Sunday at 6:30 a.m. The Archdiocese of Denver produces the program, which has been on-air continuously for 53 years.

"I have to say that any time, whether it's weather or a malfunction, if Mass doesn't air, we have voice mailboxes full of the elderly calling us," said Jeannette DeMelo, spokeswoman for the archdiocese.

The 30-minute program serves as the only way some homebound seniors and nursing-home residents can connect with their community of faith, said DeMelo.

"Aside from it being the church's role to provide for the vulnerable and the weak, I think society in general seeks to do that," said DeMelo. "That's why we're grateful that PBS has allowed this to continue to happen because I really do think it's a service for the broader public."

Public broadcasting stations in New Orleans and Washington recently have shown similar Sunday Masses. KBYU out of Provo, Utah, which is affiliated with Mormon-owned Brigham Young University, shows daily Mormon programming alongside PBS favorites like "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" and "Sesame Street."

The vote may come too little, too late for one program. Washington's WHUT already released its "Sunday TV Mass" from the line-up, according to Archdiocese of Washington spokeswoman Susan Gibbs.

Gibbs said the archdiocese, which funds the long-running televised service, has been shopping around for a new home for the show since March, after word came from WHUT that PBS would be reconsidering its religious broadcasts.

Gibbs said the archdiocese recently signed a contract with The CW-Channel 50, at a price that will cost $60,000 more per year than it did on public broadcasting.

Since 1985, PBS has committed its programming to be noncommercial, nonpolitical and nonsectarian in order to guarantee fair and balanced coverage. For the last 18 months, PBS has been conducting an overall policy review to update the organization for the new media age.

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