What's ahead for PBS, Part 2. Funding: enough to thrive or just survive?

By , the Monitor's television critic.

``Stayin' Alive'' might well be the theme song of the current Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) pledge drives, which are taking place this month on most of the 309 PBS stations throughout the United States. But to some PBS advocates, ``banging the tambourine'' seems a demeaning way to finance what they consider one of broadcasting's highest-minded operations -- one that makes a broad selection of uplifting cultural and educational programming available to practically all of America's households with TV sets.

The theme should be ``thriving'' rather than just ``surviving,'' they believe -- and thriving on a permanent, secure basis, so that future programming can be developed without stations looking over their shoulders at the bill collectors. This, however, would require a steadier, surer flow of money into the coffers of PBS than has been the case in recent years.

Who picks up the tab for public TV?

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

In 1984, state governments contributed 21.7 percent of the costs (see chart); viewer-subscribers, 20.2 percent; corporations and businesses, 15.7 percent; the federal government (through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting), 12.9 percent; and state colleges and universities, 7.3 percent. The remaining 22.2 percent came from such sources as local governments, federal grants and contracts, foundations, and auctions.

Despite the perception that public television is funded primarily by the federal government, only 16.1 percent came from Washington, while 83.9 percent came from nonfederal sources. And, again contrary to public perception, viewer-subscribers gave around a third again as much as corporate underwriters.

Almost all the insiders agree that the funding pie is balanced, so that no single group is likely to wrest total control. Most, however, would like to see the federal government's share increased considerably and the amount of its funding determined three years in advance, to conform with commitments to production schedules.

What are some additional income sources? Several have been tried and others have been under consideration for years (see article at right below). The two most in the news these days, however, are ``enhanced underwriting'' and channel swapping.

Enhanced underwriting provides more time for the underwriters of a program to identify themselves and describe their services. PBS insiders consider that it stops just short of advertising.

PBS station WNET in New York has gone a step further. It recently announced that it is shopping for sponsors for 30-second spots, to allow corporations to identify themselves and their products on the station.

WNET's president, John Jay Iselin, explains, ``We have to develop alternative sources of revenue. Our first advertiser was We Care About New York, which took 20 spots selling a cleaner New York.'' Mr. Iselin asserts that WNET spots are different from normal commercials because they are principally in support of community-based operations. He calls them ``videograms,'' rather than commercials. ``They do not sell products, but say something about the corporation or even our programming. And there are no interruptions, no selling of adjacent spots.'' Iselin indicates that the WNET guidelines will probably make it necessary for advertisers to prepare special spots for PBS, ones that would not interrupt programming but would appear before or after shows.

Already there is some grumbling from regular underwriters, who do not relish the idea of funding a show for millions of dollars only to have another corporation walk in and, for a mere $1,500, promote itself with a 30-second advertisement. But Iselin says he sees his ``videograms'' as opportunities for small and medium-size corporations that cannot afford full underwriting to support public television and get something in return. There could be problems, as well, from unions that have made special c oncessions to PBS stations because they were noncommercial operations.

Channel swaps, if approved by the Federal Communications Commission, would grant PBS stations the right to exchange powerful VHF (very-high frequency) channels for less powerful UHF (ultra-high frequency) channels, plus a large cash payment. The argument against such exchanges is that in most instances they would result in a weaker signal for the UHF PBS stations, and thus a smaller broadcast range. It is said that a UHF signal might cover as little as 60 percent of the area covered by a comparable V HF station.

Many leading commercial broadcasters oppose such exchanges, on grounds they would open the door to more competition from other commercial stations that stand to gain in broadcast range. At the same time, they contend that swaps would erode public confidence in PBS. Station WEDU in Tampa, Fla., is in the forefront of the fight for approval of swaps.

According to Fred Friendly, a former president of CBS News, ``It's not a swap, it's a scam . . . , an act of cynicism and cowardice. To even suspect that a public-television station could sell its `birthright' for cash is approaching an abdication of the role of public trustee for a noncommercial station.'' Mr. Friendly also says the selling station might be required to pay back capital gains to the original sources of funding for the VHF channel.

There are many other objectors to swaps. In the current issue of TV Quarterly, the journal of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, Rick Breitenfeld, president of station WHYY in Wilmington-Philadelphia, accuses public broadcasters of searching for easy solutions, magical pots-of-gold, through station swaps, rather than improving service to viewers.

In a 1982 report to Congress, the Temporary Commission on Alternative Financing for Public Telecommunication examined more than 30 alternative funding options and concluded that none was preferable to the ones now in use.

According to Peter Fannon, president of the National Association of Public Television Stations, PBS has put in place ``an enterprise whose constituent parts are able to work well enough together.''

``Public television isn't really competing with the commercial networks in terms of trying to attract mass audiences,'' says Peggy Hubble, director of development and national press relations at PBS. ``Yet by the very nature of the business we have to compete in the quality of our programs and our ability to promote and advertise those programs. It's amazing that for a tiny fraction of a commercial network budget, public television has gained recognition and visibility as a major force in American tel evision.''

So, looking to the future of public television, the insiders make it clear that PBS does not need new ideas for financing or programming. What it needs is the certainty of lots more money each year to do more of what it has already been doing: making available to all of America programming that is exciting, entertaining, and culturally enriching. It needs this in 1985, in 1986 -- and it will need it in the year 2000.

Second of three parts. Tomorrow: What we will see on PBS in the '80s, '90s, and the year 2000.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...