Liquor, cigarette 'underwriting' looms for public TV

Liquor and cigarette advertising, long banned from commercial television, is threatening to make a comeback through underwriter credits on Public Broadcasting Service.

For many years, the advertising standards of the National Association of Broadcasters have forbidden hard-liquor and cigarette ads. Cigarette ads are also forbidden by law. So the commercial airwaves have been free of such advertising.

But now, with the recent changes in Public Broadcasting Service guidelines for corporate underwriting, companies that sell liquor and cigarettes may underwrite PBS programs.

From the world headquarters of R.J. Reynolds Industries Inc. in Winston-Salem , N.C., comes this provocative press release:

''A new era in public television begins in September when the first program underwritten by a company that sells cigarettes and liquor airs nationwide . . . R.J. Reynolds Industries Inc., whose subsidiary companies include R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, R. J. Reynolds Tobacco International Inc., and Heublein Spirits & Wine Company, is corporate underwriter of 'Where Dreams Debut: The North Carolina School of the Arts.' . . .

''In June 1982, the PBS board of directors relaxed underwriting guidelines to allow certain firms with business interests in tobacco and liquor to fund production of public television programming. The revised guidelines opened new doors for potential corporate funding to public broadcasting while creating an opportunity for companies like R.J. Reynolds to gain underwriting credit on public television. . . .''

An experimental underwriting program at 10 PBS stations, concluded in June, tested the use of actual commercials and ''enhanced underwriter credits,'' a euphemism for short commercials at the beginning and end of PBS programs. A report on the experiment is scheduled for October release by PBS. However, according to Mary Jane McKinven, Washington PBS public information director, R.J. Reynolds has not taken part in that experiment, so there is no liquor or tobacco advertising on PBS.

Does this R.J. Reynolds underwriting mean that PBS, which so often leads the way in quality of programming, will also be opening the TV door to liquor and cigarette advertising on American television?

Since PBS president Larry Grossman is on vacation, the question was answered by Ms. McKinven: ''Certainly not. There is a big difference between sponsorship and underwriting. We have underwriters, not sponsors. But even so, our guidelines do not allow us to accept underwriting credits for a company solely engaged in the tobacco or liquor business. R.J. Reynolds Industries Inc. is the parent company of such corporations as Del Monte Corporation (canned foods), Kentucky Fried Chicken Corporation, etc. The liquor and tobacco corporations are not its sole business. If it were, the company would not be an acceptable underwriter.''

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