Public TV counterattacks in its battle against cable's 'culture grab'

Public Broadcasting Service, until now the leading broadcaster of cultural programming, is finally taking off its kid gloves in its battle for survival against the growing number of supposedly "cultural" cable and pay-TV channels which are being announced every day.

Lawrence K. Grossman, PBS president, is right now in the process of unveiling his detailed plan for "public television's partnership with the nation's performing arts and other cultural institutions" to form a new American cultural and educational pay television programming service. Plans are to start the "Public Subscriber Network" in 1983.

In a report just issued, titled "The Grand Alliance," Mr. Grossman proposes a service that would include a major 90-minute to three-hour performing arts, cultural, or nonfiction feature presentation every night. There would also be special-interest upper level telecourses and master classes during the day.

Mr. Grossman's innovative plan would find a place for PBS in the changing television market -- something many serious students of quality programming have been worrying about as the cultural programming plans of other organizations are revealed, many of which will depend upon advertisers to survive.

Mr. Grossman's proposed Public Subscriber Network is based upon a "partnership" between public television stations and the nation's leading cultural organizations -- theater, opera, museums, orchestras, and universities. Throughout the nation PBS stations and these cultural organizations would function as limited partners -- the general operating partner would be a nonprofit corporation affiliated with PBS, but with a separate identity.

PBS anticipates more than 350,000 families would subscribe to the new network in its first operating year in 1983. The service would be initiated in at least 50 markets.

Cost? An average of $10 to $13 per month per household. However, this would have to be supplemented by revenues earned through the sale of clustered institutional messages paid by corporate underwriters. It is planned that these programs would be broadcast subsequently on public television with standard public-TV on-air credits.

Whether or not this late entry into the national "cultural rush" will be able to compete against the many systems which are already in the works remains to be seen.

BRAVO, which identifies itself as "the first pay-TV cable service devoted exclusively to the performing arts" is already functioning in many areas. It premiered nationwide via satellite on Dec. 8, inaugurating regular service on Sunday and Monday evenings. Just last Friday and Saturday BRAVO taped concerts by the Houston Symphony Orchestra. The concerts will be distributed by Rainbow Programming Services Network, as are all BRAVO shows.

Meantime, such organizations as CBS CAble Television Corporation of America and RCTV push ahead with similar cultural programming. According to CBS Cable's Robert Shay, the CBS programs will be offered free to cable systems. Costs will be borne by advertisers who have, according to what Mr. Shay told me recently, not yet been told exactly how much time they may devote to commercial messages.

Thus the battle for America's culture buffs continues. Whether or not a large enough market actually exists remains to be seen. Mobil's culture expert, Herb Schmertz, remains very vocal in his assertion that all of these companies are misjudging the size of the potential market as he goes about underwriting "Masterpiece Theater" on PBS and picks up semicultural series from commercial British companies for showing on his own ad hoc network of independent sta tions . . . none of which require payment by the viewer.

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