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PBS's thorny issue: whether to expand the MacNeil/Lehrer Report

By Arthur Unger / November 19, 1982


Public television's most controversial programming decision ever - concerning a daily one-hour ''MacNeil/Lehrer Report'' - is causing great soul-searching in and out of PBS.

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What appears to be a programming matter actually involves fundamental questions about the ways public TV can influence the news business - possibly pushing commercial TV closer to its own one-hour news programs - as well as concerns about the place of corporate sponsors in such programming.

According to Robert MacNeil, an AT&T $10 million production grant for the program would be the largest single corporate commitment in public TV. In addition, AT&T pledged to spend $2 million more on advertising and promotion of the show.

The decision of whether or not to accept the offer - to be matched by a similar amount from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and around 300 PBS-affiliated stations - will probably come up for a preliminary vote by program directors on Monday, with a more binding vote due later in the year.

At last week's annual PBS Program Fair - at which station program managers gathered here to consider which shows they will buy for the upcoming year - the idea of a nightly one-hour ''MacNeil/Lehrer Report'' was the subject most often discussed.

Some station programmers felt they were being ''brainwashed'' by the MacNeil-Lehrer team, which attended and made two major presentations. In addition, there was a luncheon sponsored by AT&T and statements of support for the hour-long show by CPB President Edward Pfister and PBS President Lawrence Grossman.

There was some question as to whether the MacNeil-Lehrer combination presented a strong and pleasant enough image to attract viewers five nights a week - and some resentment that in their presentation, Mr. MacNeil and Jim Lehrer hinted they might not consent to return with their popular half-hour nightly show if the programmers rejected their suggestion for a one-hour nightly show. The half-hour show was not even submitted as a possibility - in what appeared to be an attempt to pressure the programmers into accepting the one-hour concept.

At first, it was suggested that the hour be aired from 8 to 9 p.m. every night, but the plan was altered so that, if accepted, it would probably be available for airing at 6 p.m., 7 p.m., 8 p.m., or even later, leaving the choice to the individual stations.

According to the presentation made by Messrs. MacNeil and Lehrer, the new show would be very different from the current ''MacNeil/Lehrer Report,'' which to a great extent offers one topic discussed by ''talking head'' experts. ''Gone would be the automatic one-story-a-night formula,'' they said in their presentation. ''On some nights there might be two, three, four, or more stories. On rare occasions when there was a supreme news event, the entire program might be devoted to various aspects of a single story.''

And there would be great flexibility in format - besides ''talking head'' experts, there would be more film and tape pieces, more documentaries. They even answered the accusation that they were ''humorless'' by promising there would be a place for ''humor and delight.''

In a later paper they delivered which delved more extensively into the ''news for grownups'' program plan, MacNeil and Lehrer indicated that the new show would be ''a one-hour nightly news magazine.'' Not like ''60 Minutes,'' ''20/20, '' or ''PM Magazine,'' they stressed, but ''first and foremost, a news program - and the news, whether hard or soft, will not be frivolous.''