PBS's Grossman guides network to strongest season yet

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Public Broadcasting Service has ''risen like a phoenix,'' according to Lawrence K. Grossman, PBS president. Flying in the face of last year's doomsday predictions for public broadcasting, the opening of the new 1983-84 year for PBS reveals a system stronger than ever, with a programming schedule that seems to be the best in its 12-year history.

In an interview conducted in his sparsely furnished, almost totally undecorated office in the headquarters of PBS here, Mr. Grossman told me:

''I have never been more optimistic. Only a year ago even the Office of Management and Budget of the federal government and the President's policymaking communications arm were telling President Reagan, 'It's all over for public television; it's an anachronism; write it off; there's no need for funding.' It was supposed to be the takeover year for cable and direct-broadcast satellites. Such new channels as CBS Cable and the Entertainment Channel were supposed to do the job of providing American viewers with cultural programming.

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''Well, most of them have gone bust. And PBS, despite reduced funding, is coming into a golden age of programming with probably its best season ever starting this month and with a winter season ahead which will be absolutely breathtaking.''

I must say that I agree with Mr. Grossman's naturally biased view of the PBS schedule. Some of the new and returning shows have already premiered and the rest will begin in the weeks ahead. I have sampled most of them and can report that PBS is coming up with several blockbuster shows. The commercial networks, meanwhile, are providing viewers with, to a great extent, more of the same old stuff we get every year.

Some of the PBS highlights:

* ''The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour'' - broadcast television's first nightly one-hour news show.

* ''Vietnam: A Television History'' - a 13-part comprehensive exploration of the Vietnam conflict, already hailed as landmark TV.

* ''The Chemical People'' - a two-part special hosted by Nancy Reagan that fights alcohol and drug abuse among young people.

* ''Dinner at Julia's'' - still another Julia Child cooking series.

* ''Great Performances'' - a series returning with a new ''Alice in Wonderland'' and continuing with such varied delights as a multimillion-dollar Italian production of ''Verdi,'' hosted by Burt Lancaster.

* ''Masterpiece Theatre'' - which premiered with ''Pictures'' and will feature such new series as A.J. Cronin's ''The Citadel.''

* ''The Shakespeare Plays'' - which begins this season of the Bard with Nicol Williamson in ''Macbeth.''

* ''Live From the Met'' and ''Live From Lincoln Center'' - with periodic live performances.

* ''Silk Screen'' - a new series showcasing current works by and about Asian Americans.

* ''Raphael'' - a three-part documentary marking the 500th anniversary of the birth of this Renaissance artist.

* ''International Edition'' - a new series, focusing on how events in the United States are reported to the world.

* ''The Oil Kingdoms'' - a three-part series, now airing, about the smaller Persian Gulf nations.

* ''Nature,'' ''Nova,'' ''Newton's Apple,'' ''Wild America,'' and the ''Survival Specials'' - all science and nature series.

* ''The Making of a Continent'' - three-part geological series exploring the formation of the American West.

* ''Inside Story,'' ''This Old House,'' ''Sesame Street,'' ''The Electric Company,'' ''3-2-1 Contact,'' ''Tony Brown's Journal,'' ''The Lawmakers,'' ''Washington Week in Review,'' ''Wall Street Week,'' ''Sneak Previews,'' and several other returning series.

According to Mr. Grossman, the even better 1984 season will also include ''Nicholas Nickleby''; a new ''American Playhouse'' with works by Philip Roth, Sam Shepherd, and Eugene O'Neill, among others; a returning ''Frontline''; the new Bill Moyers series, ''A Walk Through the 20th Century''; and one of Mr. Grossman's favorite new shows, ''No Sacred Cows.''

This last is an experimental series in which, he says: ''We will take films that normally we could not and would not show, because they are highly ideological or propagandistic, but nevertheless are worthwhile seeing because they say something important or unusual or focus on major issues.'' Sounds like a fine - but obviously controversial - idea for public television.

Mr. Grossman is too modest to point out that although his function as head of PBS is nominally to coordinate and distribute programming services for the system's nearly 300 stations, he takes an active interest in the development of new programming. For instance, he was a prime mover behind the acclaimed Vietnam series and the ''MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.''

But he doesn't want the public to misunderstand the current news stories about the fiscal health of PBS. He has managed to run the organization well within the budgeted administrative funds, unlike National Public Radio, which ran into deep financial trouble.

''Increased funding is essential for long-term PBS success,'' he says. ''Last year we were cut back from $172 million to $137 million. Now we are at the $130 million mark, and the administration wants to bring it down to $75 million and phase out all government funding altogether. They keep saying that we should be able to survive on private-sector and entrepreneurial financing alone. NPR believed that and almost went bankrupt.

''Every unbiased survey of public television in America has come to the conclusion that federal funding is essential and that now it is vastly underfunded. Our government provides less per capita for public television than any other public system in industrial nations, East and West. In Canada, it's $ 16 per capita; in Great Britain, it's $11; in Japan, $14. In the US, the figure is 90 cents per capita. The disparity is enormous.

Mr. Grossman revealed that he is still having meetings with a committee from the National Association of Broadcasters to air a prime-time two-hour special that would salute PBS and, incidentally, aid in fund raising. The three commercial networks have already turned down the idea of a straight-out fund-raiser.

Despite his optimism about this year and next year, Mr. Grossman worries about what will happen three years from now when the effects of the current funding cut will become evident. The new shows we are seeing now are the result of earlier, higher-funding years. Already, PBS has had to cut back on programs sent to affiliates for use on Thursday and Saturday nights.

But with all the problems, PBS audiences have risen dramatically, now reach ing 44 million homes a week, with the average home watching PBS around three hours a week. Says Mr. Grossman: ''The last Nielsen ratings we got for Labor Day week we were up 17 percent over a year ago. Every week has shown an increase for PBS in the face of very substantial erosion of audiences for the commercial networks.''

An interesting sidelight is that PBS does anywhere between 15 and 20 percent better in cable homes. Why?

''Well, two-thirds of our stations are UHF, and you need the finger tips of a safecracker to tune them in. Cable is an equalizer, because many systems put the PBS station on the converter, which makes it easier to find.

How can PBS solve the future funding problem?

''I don't think there'll ever be a time when there's no funding problem. There's never been a cultural institution that didn't have financial problems. While corporate underwriting, foundation and local-government support, and individual contributions are important, I believe we will always need government funding. At the same time, we have been very aggressive - and at the same time very careful - to earn revenue from leasing our excess capacity on our satellite capacity, selling and renting our video cassettes and exploring pay-TV opportunities.''

In what new directions will PBS move in the future?

''There's an enormous need for adult education. We are entering an era of a growing proportion of adults who need job retraining and an upgrading of the richness of their lives.

''In addition, we have applied for a whole system of narrow-cast special frequencies to be able to reach specialized audiences. We can use these frequencies to improve people's awareness of local issues and increase their civic sense.

''And then there is the area of children's programming: 'Sesame Street,' 'Electric Company,' and 'Mr. Rogers' are not enough. We have to renew that franchise, particularly in view of the quality of children's programming elsewhere.''

What can the average PBS viewer do to ensure continuing PBS excellence besides contributing money to his local station?

''The average viewer has got to let his or her congressman, mayor, state legislature, city council know the importance of the local PBS station in the community. That's already beginning to happen. That's why Congress itself took the initiative to reverse the downtrend in federal funding. They realized what a strong constituency PBS has.''

Mr. Grossman reiterates his pride in the fact that this year has seen ''the fall and rise of PBS, rather than the rise and fall.

''One of the things I am proudest of,'' he says as we walk to the door of the near-deserted PBS office (it is now almost 7 p.m.), ''is the fact that our audience is reflecting the character of the nation. It's not made up of the elite - the rich and well educated. It's a broad-scale audience, which includes just about every segment of the US population. Our surveys show that.

''As we shake hands, he smiles just a bit sadly (or is it with weariness?), saying: ''There are weeks when I'd like to turn it all in for a little peace on Saturdays. I have a sense of accomplishment and a sense of satisfaction, sure, but there's such a long way to go. Then I look around at the rest of American broadcasting and I realize that public television is the only place to be, the only place in broadcasting where I could get that kind of satisfaction.

''More than 44 million Americans a week have learned that they, too, can get that kind of satisfaction on PBS.

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