Who pays for PBS?: Mobil VP says it shouldn't be Uncle Sam

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The man who is instrumental in bringing you ''Masterpiece Theatre'' believes that the United States government should remove itself from arts funding. And that would mean no future money for PBS.

No, not Alistair Cooke, but Herbert Schmertz, vice-president of public affairs for Mobil Oil and one of corporate America's most visible - and vocal - culture mavens. Under his guidance, Mobil underwrites ''Masterpiece Theatre'' and ''Mystery'' on PBS, sets up ad hoc syndication networks for other shows it wishes to sponsor, contributes to many museums and art shows throughout the country, and involves itself in underwriting concerts, ballets, and other performing arts.

Mr. Schmertz spoke at a ''Who Pays for PBS'' seminar recently at the New York Museum of Broadcasting.

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''Who pays is very simple,'' he explained. ''The consumer pays. The rest of us are just hired hands for government and nongovernment institutions who have the opportunity and responsibility to take the consumer's money and put it into various things.

''The other group that pays is the taxpayer. When ad agencies spend the dollars of corporate clients, they are spending consumers' money. When I spend money for Mobil, I am spending consumers' money. The government is not spending government money (when it funds PBS), it is spending your money, and hired bureaucrats are making artistic decisions as to how taxpayers' money should be spent.

''I don't think the government should be spending taxpayers' money on what I believe is a substantial politicization of the cultural scene. Inevitably, if the government spends money, politics enters into the decisionmaking and frequently money is spent for propaganda. I don't mind public affairs programming on public television, but I do mind public money going into such programming.''

Mr. Schmertz went on to say that frequently he asks groups for a show of hands on how many favor government funding for PBS and many hands go up. Then, he asks how many would want government funds to establish a newspaper and people are appalled at the idea. Yet, in some respects, public television is no more than an electronic newspaper, he implies.

Over and over again, Mr. Schmertz reiterated his belief that ''when government spends taxpayers' money, it inevitably becomes politicized.''

What is the alternative, I asked Mr. Schmertz.

''Arts should be funded by the private sector. Government funds should not be involved in the arts.''

Does that mean Mr. Schmertz would like to see PBS abandoned altogether?

''No. There should be a PBS, but they shouldn't be using government money.''

Since corporations and corporate foundations provide less than 12 percent of PBS funding now, how would Herb Schmertz make up the funding gap?

''It all comes back to my marketplace views. PBS should make it in the marketplace or not make it at all. It should not be subsidized by government. The people who believe in it should support it.'' PBS president Larry Grossman has pointed out many times in the past that never in history have the arts been able to exist without some sort of subsidy.

Is Mr. Schmertz's ad hoc network of independent stations through which he aired ''Nicholas Nickleby'' the answer?

''That should be a supplement more than an alternative. It increases the spectrum. But there's a role for both.''

Mr. Schmertz believes government funding should be phased out. ''Over a period of years. The public should be aware that if the institution of PBS is to survive, it must get private funding . . . from individual contributions as well as from corporations and foundations.

''I don't think it will happen overnight, but the tradition of PBS surviving on private funding should be established. That will take five or six years at least.''

Any signs that corporate America will take a greater interest?

''Maybe greater but not as great as I'd like.''

''Mobil's funding levels won't go up, but the positive attention that we have received as a result of our funding ought to encourage other corporations to want to replicate it.'' Top 10 funders (The top 10 corporate/corporate foundation funders of PBS programming in 1983, in alphabetical order): American Telephone & Telegraph Company Exxon Corporation General Electric Company General Motors Company Getty Oil Company Gulf Oil Company Mobil Corporation Shell Companies Foundation Inc. Sun Company Inc. Texaco Philanthropic Foundation Inc. Source: Public Broadcasting Service

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