The future of public TV -- an issue bothering millions of viewers

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Whither PBS? That's a question bothering millions of PBS viewers and hundreds of PBS employees. Just as in Washington, D.C., today the Carter administration people are scurrying for cover and jobs, so a similar panic seems to be hitting PBS.

Public Broascasting Service, anticipating a decline in governmental support under the incoming Reagan administration, is anxiously trying to find a place for itself -- and its legions of executives -- in the new scheme of things. Larry Grossman, its president, has already gone on record as believing that the future role of PBS may be as a distributor of quality programming for cable as well as for public and commercial over-the-air broadcasters.

Public Broadcasting stations are striving desperately to discover new ways of generating income to support themselves. Already there is talk of permitting commerical sponsorship of PBS programming, of allowing underwriter logos on air, of initiating a pay-TV service of "high-quality" cultural and educational programs (isn't that what we think we are getting now?) and of introducing a bill in Congress to tax TV-set owners BBC-style.

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So Public Broadcasting Service is reaching out toward anything floating on the airwaves in its vicinity. Supporters of PBS, concerned about the future of public broadcasting -- myself included -- believe that in the not-too-distant future we may look back longingly on this past decade as "the golden age of PBS."

In the spirit of finding viable alternatives to dependence upon government grants, underwriter funding, and on-the-air solicited viewer subscriptions (or perhaps in addition to these standard methods), New York/NEw Jersey's WNET/13 has announced a complex reorganization plan for its parent Educational Broadcasting Corporation, under which the station will be restructured into four divisions -- National, to create programming for PBS; Metropolitan, to "enhance and reinforce" the station's role locally; enterprises; Educational, to "affirm" the partnership between technology and education.

Coming under the Enterprises division will be "The Dial," public television's new national magazine, supported by viewer-subscribers plus preferential postal regulations. PBS supporters in New York, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles and most recently Detroit, who contribute an average annual $25 will receive "The Dial" montly starting January 1981. The magazine, which contains PBS listings as well as some listings and feature material about all of TV, is not available by individual subscription or on the newsstands. The December issue, for example, has a pin-up picture of Sally Kellerman (star of PBS's "Big Blonde") on the cover, and stories inside local news and Oscar the Grouch's thoughts about Christmas.

Now serving more than 70,0000 households, "The Dial" is already under attack by commercial publishers who complain that this not-for-profit magazine represents unfair competition to them. There are lawsuits challenging the magazine's tax status as well as its postal rates. And there is a congressional amendment recently introduced which would deny federal funds to public broadcasting stations whose program guides carry paid advertising.

Recently, at a WNET luncheon, I asked John Jay Iselin, president of WNET, what would happen if all federal funding for public broadcasting were terminated.

"Probably one-third of all the PBS stations would disappear," he predicted.

"Would that be so bad?" I asked. "Mightn't it be a good idea for PBS to rid itself of its own chaff, shake itself down a bit more, simplify its own operations?"

He shrugged . . . and continued to explain his own new quadri-partite-organizational plan.

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