New York — If Plains, Ga., were to announce next that it was forming a new Chinese opera company, the chances are that within a week the troupe would be signed to an exclusive contract with one of the new cable-TV companies. And based on what I have learned after checking out the "cultural" plans of most of the "cultural" pay-TV channels, chances are it would be considered a great coup if the first performance were hosted by, shall we say, Nancy Reagan. Organ, perhaps even better, J. R. Ewing.
Such is the desperate search for exclusivity (or, even first airing in a "tiered" schedule of airings which might later include non-cable channels). And such is the "crossover" thinking which is convinced that there is not enough of a market for culture straight-on, so it must be wrapped in some sort of pop package. It is the kind of thinking that has resulted in the current level of entertainment programming on the commercial over-the-air channels. And it is even detectable in some of the copycat crossover programming on PBS now and then.
So, if we are not careful today, we are likely to end up tomorrow with the worst of PBS on cable TV -- programming that will be interrupted by commercials and for which we will be paying a monthly fee either directly to the pay TV channel or to the cable system which brings it to us.
In self-defense, PBS itself has announced plans for a new pay-TV cable channel, the Public Subscriber Network, or what it calls a "Grand Alliance" between cultural organizations and public broadcasting. This proposed service would utilize PBS stations to distribute major performing arts or nonfiction features every night, along with special-interest higher education telecourses and master classes during the day, through cable TV as well as other technologies wherever feasible. The service might cost around $10 a month -- or it might even be provided free to local cable systems, with the profit to come from advertising, as is the CBS Cable plan.
Obviously, with the suggested cuts in the cultural budget by the Reagan administration, ranging from 25 percent now for CPB (which partly funds funds PBS) to just about 100 percent later, PBS is in trouble. Despite the tight economy which is now affecting everybody, it is my opinion that anybody interested in good-quality programming on television would do well to try to fit as much of a PBS contribution as possible into the family entertainment budget. Now is the time to keep alive and well the close to 300 stations that make up our current public broadcasting service.
To find the answer I talked to three key people in the PBS hierarchy -- Larry Grossman, president of PBS; Jay Iselin, president of WNET/NY (one of the largest and most active member stations); and Bill Moyers, generally acknowledged to be "the conscience of American TV." Larry Grossman, PBS president:
"The first thing to do is recognize the performance [of PBS] VS. the promise [of pay TV].
"Let Congress and anybody else in a position to support public broadcasting know that you care about the quality programming PBS is providing. There must be some monetary support from the public sector.
"But you must also support your own station. Individuals must give more."
Mr. Grossman believes that the time is far gone that we can emulate the BBC system and charge TV set owners a license fee to support PBS. And he is not in favor of a "spectrum fee," which would charge stations a fee based upon the value of the airwaves which they are being allowed to use now for a minimal charge.
How about advertising on PBs?
"I would be skeptical -- very few advertisers would even be interested because of the comparatively small numbers. And it would drive away the public. Performers, too, would no longer be willing to work for scale. The cost of achieving an advertising base and the cost to our own mission would simply be too great."
Mr. Grossman feels differently about pay-TV system which PBS stations would partly own and which would provide cultural programs with sponsor messages. "For us to be out of pay-TV picture at a time when so many others are coming in is unthinkable. But advertising on public television, no! It would change the whole basis under which we operate.
"We must always be aware of our underlying mission, which is to provide quality programming, highlighting the best that our society has to offer."
Mr. Grossman is optimistic about the funding drives now in progress on most PBS stations. PBS seems to thrive in adversity, he believes. "When President Nixon vetoed federal appropriations, the current station independent system started, and we now raise more money ourselves than through federal appropriations. During the December membership drives there was an increase of more than 50 percent.
"The public has a grand opportunity right now to vote with its own dollars on whether or not it wants free PBS to continue."
Obviously, in our society nothing is really free -- the consumer pays in one way or another. Mr. Grossman believes that it is time the PBS consumer assumed a greater share of the burden. Jay Iselin, president of WNET/NY:
"The Grossman plan for pay-TV is premature," according to Mr. Iselin, who is worried that the publicity about it as a means of funding PBS (which he considers questionable anyway) may affect the way people contribute to current fund-raising drives.
He does not believe that accepting advertising is a viable alternative, although he feels it should be investigated further . . . along with the pay-TV plan and the ideas for licensing and spectrum usage fees.
"If what President Reagan is saying is that voluntarism is alive and well in our society, that the public is able to discriminate between good programming and bad and is prepared to participate by contributing, I buy that.
"I really do believe that the basis for our service is truly public -- not federal, but public. Our own Proposition 13 [WNET is channel 13 in the NY area] is that we can tighten our belts and deliver more programming for less. But the viewer in return must deliver more dollars.
"Far from being in jeopardy, I think it is time for emancipation from the chains of uncertain federal funding . . . and for movement forward. We have had 10 years of federal support. We are now clearly, unambiguously, unmistakably a public service.The individual public and the corporate public are the cornerstones of what we are about.
"We deserve some federal support, but where there is a marketplace for our programming, where people believe in us, we must turn to that market for our major support.
"So, vote for us with your pen and your telephone during our drive for membership. The test period is over. PBS must now move forward on its own."
If that sounds like a pep talk, like a brave voice crying out in the dark, I believe that is exactly what it is. But it is a wise and constructive voice to which any admirer of PBS programming must listen now. Bill Moyers:
"Some form of controlled advertising could work. But it must not be allowed to interrupt the content of the program -- maybe five minutes at the beginning or end.
"As long ago as 1969 when I was publisher of Newsday and spoke to "The Friends of Channel 13,' I created controversy by saying that Public Broadcasting must not become dependent upon government funds if it is to survive. I said that in speech after speech. I knew that it was inevitable that funds would not be available and if they were available they would come with too high a price attached. Well, the time has come."
Mr. Moyers feels that the spectrum usage fee is still a possibility but "it is too late for a licensing fee on TV set owners unless the public itself becomes aroused at the possible loss of the kind of quality programming that public television represents."
"With most people having trouble making ends meet," he says, "with poor people losing food stamps, schoolchildren losing lunches, farmers losing dairy support, mass transit users losing subsidies, public broadcasting cannot stand up and say 'help, help, help, and expect to get sympathy. It must do something more for itself."
What does Mr. Moyers believe the average PBS viewer can do to ensure the continuation of the service?
"Decide on how valuable public TV is to your own leisure time and contribute accordingly. For instance, five movies a year would cost you and your family much more than $60; a pair of tickets to the opera or one Broadway show would be about that. Subscribing to a pay-TV or cable system will cost you at least $10 per month and for half that you could be supporting public TV.
"PBS must not become just another special-interest group holding out its cup before a sad-eyed Uncle Sam. I don't believe we should urge our viewers to write Congress; I believe we should urge our viewers to write us."
And, preferably, with money in the envelope.
"Bill Moyers' Journal" will probably be going off the air at the conclusion of its current season because of lack of funding, and rumor has it that public TV may lose him once again to commercial broadcasting mainly because it is so demeaning to hold out that cup every year. PBS festival nights:
It has started already. Chances are your local PBS station is right now infuriating you with its insistent urging that you contribute to its support.
Through March 22, beside the regular superior PBS fare, you are being offered such goodies as "Live From the Grand Ole Opry," a "Masterpiece Theater" tenth-anniversary celebration with Alistair Cooke, a Katharine Hepburn retrospective, a Carnegie Hall "Gala of Stars" with such talent as Beverly Sills , Marilyn Horne, Victoria de los Angeles, Jean-Pierre Rampal, and Liza Minelli. Check your local station for dates and times at the same time that you phone in your pledge.
If you have managed regularly to find a few hours a week of enlightening, uplifting, informational (and still entertaining) TV, chances are you have found it on PBS. So, now, if you can possibly manage to fit a fair contribution into your budget, this is the time to confirm and reaffirm your belief in a service that is rapidly becoming an endangered species. Save the whale and save the seal. But let us also save PBS.