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Corporate US to Reagan's PBS plea: 'Sorry'

By Arthur UngerArthur Unger is the Monitor's television critic. / November 7, 1983



New York

Has the Reagan administration's call for more private-sector support for the Public Broadcasting System resulted in a great outpouring of corporate funding for PBS?

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I asked that question of PBS president Lawrence K. Grossman, and his answer was a succinct ''No.''

He explained: ''Corporate support has been generous but at a relatively level pace. The addition of one new big grant from AT&T (for the ''MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour'') or the James S. McDonnell Foundation (for ''Smithsonian World'') might make it seem as if there is a great rise, but one or two grants can radically change the picture. Basically, however, there has not been any great response from corporate America.

''The companies which concern themselves with their roles as citizens do certainly use PBS as a major resource, and we continue to get generous support, but it certainly cannot be said there has been a great outpouring of funding money as a result of the Reagan administration strong urging. Why, even the White House concerts were not easy to get fully underwritten.''

Does corporate underwriting of arts programming on PBS compete for the funds that corporations set aside to support the arts themselves?

''I think there are some who believe that,'' Mr. Grossman says. ''But my own view is different. I think it's synergistic.

''If a company is interested in supporting the Metropolitan Opera, as Texaco was for so many years, they put it on radio and eventually they end up underwriting it on television. And vice versa. If Shell Oil becomes interested in the Kennedy Center television programs of PBS, it would tend to be more receptive to underwriting such arts events which have nothing to do with television. One form of support whets the appetite for other forms.''

Grossman believes one of the most significant positive signs of corporate support for PBS in the future is the formation of the Corporate Support for Public Television group (see article on Page B9 in this supplement). ''Until this point, it's been the people in Public Television, the producers, who have gone out to try to sell the companies on the value of underwriting. Now, we are seeing that corporations which are involved themselves are beginning to go out to try to persuade their colleagues to come in. I think that's going to be a very powerful force.''

Can Grossman point to any specific instances in the past few years where a corporate giver has benefited from its underwriting?

''That's a very hard thing to talk about and something that the corporations themselves are very interested in finding out,'' he says. ''How do you judge whether the money spent was worthwhile? Gulf and other major underwriters have taken attitude surveys, recognition and awareness surveys, to find out whether the people have changed their view of the company because the company has been associated with a Public Television program. But we are not privy to most of that information, because that's very private corporate strategy information. But the indications are that it has been sufficiently positive.

''But, in truth, I have to say that most of the companies which underwrite do not have cost-per-thousand, hard-nosed facts to back up what they do. It's a sense of commitment that they have, that if it's a worthwhile program they are underwriting, it is bound to be good for their companies.''