New York — Corporate and corporate foundation support for public television grows steadily each year. As Public Broadcasting Service celebrated the 15th anniversary of its founding on Nov. 3, the number of underwriters among American corporations and foundations investing more than $50,000 in the programming of the cooperative reached 77.
In its first year as as an interconnected system, there were a mere handful of corporate underwriters. Now, besides the 77 contributing more than $50,000 each (see accompanying box for ten top funders), there are hundreds more on the local level.
Last year an ad hoc group of companies interested in the continued vitality of PBS formed Corporations in Support of Public Television (CSPT). The steering committee was made up of representatives from American Telephone & Telegraph, Atlantic-Richfield Company, Chevron, Chubb, Exxon, Ford, General Electric, International Business Machines, Mobil, Morgan Guaranty, and J.C. Penney.
The mission of CSPT is to encourage new corporate underwriting by providing information to prospects and serving as a sounding board for PBS.
Harvey C. McCormick, chairman of CSPT and manager of public relations for J.C. Penney, said the organization now also includes Metropolitan Life and Texaco. ''Our third meeting is planned for February 1985, and it will be a teleconference or else we will videotape the meeting and various stations around the country will invite their potential underwriters in to view it.''
Mr. McCormick said that despite Reagan administration urging, he believes it will be impossible for the private sector to take over all the funding of PBS. ''The corporations cannot do it alone. There has to be government funding, too. Ideally, it would be wonderful if all the funds could come from the public and from corporations and foundations. But PBS is enough of a public service that taxpayers' dollars should be allocated to support it, too.
''The public needs the alternative programming of PBS. We at CSPT want to help make certain that the programming, which seems to get better all the time, gets the support it needs.''
Many corporations for tax reasons prefer to fund PBS through foundations. In some instances this also places more distance between the corporation and program content in the case of potentially controversial material. For instance, Atlantic Richfield (ARCO) funds ''High Schools'' and other specials through the Atlantic Richfield Foundation, and Texaco funds ''Live From the Met'' through the Texaco Philanthropic Foundation.
That's the altruistic part of it - the need for alternate programming. But one of PBS's top ten funders wants to make it clear that there are also self-serving reasons for funding.
John P. Madigan Jr., vice-president for communications of the Chubb Group of Insurance Companies (which underwrites ''American Playhouse''), said candidly:
''We started underwriting on a purely pro bono basis - we felt PBS was a public activity deserving of corporate support. We didn't know what good it would do us as a corporation.
''But over the past eight years it has become apparent to us that underwriting on PBS helps us create an image and an identity with an audience that is important to us: upscale, educated people who sell and buy our services.
''We started with the 'Dick Cavett Show' eight years ago; then we were the only corporate underwriter for the 'Vietnam: A Television History' and we were the first corporate underwriter for 'Frontline.' Now we fund 'American Playhouse.' And we are tickled pink that Chubb-underwritten programs garnered an aggregate of ten Emmies this year. That has got to be some kind of a record.''
Mr. Madigan, too, believes that the government cannot pull out of PBS funding because ''Corporate America alone cannot support PBS.''
He also believes that advertising does not have a place on PBS. ''I'm not even certain that underwriter credits should be expanded. All I need is a tagline which explains what business we are in and where we do our business.
''I tell you, as a pure media buy, PBS is outstanding.''