Washington — While NBC crept toward first place on commercial TV last season amid much acclaim, little attention was paid to the enormous strides being made by PBS. Marking only its 15th year in the form we know it today, and with a budget that amounts to just a fraction of NBC's, public broadcasting managed to win more than 95 million viewers per week -- an audience 75 percent larger than it was only seven years ago. And, according to John Fuller, PBS director of research, ``a national survey has placed PBS highest of all broadcast channels in over-the-air viewer satisfaction.''
Inveterate PBS viewers point with lingering pleasure to some of the last season's highlights: ``Jewel in the Crown,'' ``The Brain,'' ``Heritage: Civilization and the Jews.'' Then there were the continuing joys of ``Nova,'' ``Smithsonian World,'' ``National Geographic Specials,'' ``Live from Lincoln Center,'' ``Great Performances,'' ``American Playhouse,'' ``Frontline,'' and the old standbys ``Washington Week in Review,'' and ``The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.''
So what's ahead for the new 1985-86 season? Will it be as good?
Why? Well, the federal funding cuts of three years ago are just beginning to make themselves felt in programming results. Unless funding is restored to its projected higher levels, it will be a long time -- if ever -- before public television will be able once again to afford expensive original series such as ``Heritage: Civilization and the Jews,'' which rang in at $10.5 million in production costs, or ``The Brain'' or ``Cosmos,'' also high-ticket series.
Thus, the new season, while strengthened by some fine imports, includes few high-budget original series.
Right now, the only way fledgling stations can afford to move into top new programming is if they can get help from the new PBS program development fund, which makes available modest contributions drawn from all PBS stations for the development of original programming.
At this moment, it appears there will be only six new prime-time series. Their scheduling will be determined by the individual stations.
The programs returning for another season on prime PBS channels or subsidiary educational channels include ``Nature,'' ``Masterpiece Theatre,'' ``Smithsonian World,'' ``American Playhouse,'' ``Wonderworks,'' ``Nova,'' ``Frontline,'' ``Mystery!'' ``Washington Week in Review,'' ``Capitol Journal,'' ``Wall Street Week,'' ``The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour,'' ``Great Performances,'' ``Mister Rogers' Neighborhood,'' ``Sesame Street,'' ``3-2-1 Contact,'' ``Why in the World'' and ``Sneak Previews.''
So, despite a strong lineup of old favorites and a sprinkling of strong new contenders, the outlook for new programming in the years ahead looks clouded.
By the year 2000, where will programming be headed? Here are some directions indicated by PBS executives:
Barry Chase, vice-president of public-affairs programming, says his first priority is a new viewer-response program, which also includes a segment to help viewers understand how TV news programs and documentaries are made.
``My blue-sky project, however,'' Mr. Chase continues, ``is based upon the certainty that we are going to have a global communications flow that will be the bane of totalitarian governments, because it will be difficult to shut people out of the information flow. That means certain things have to change . . . . We have to begin taking a more planetary view in public-affairs programs . . . about what issues are and how they affect all of us. TV news, instead of coming at you from the perspective of New
York and Washington, will have to come from the perspective of a celestial body looking back at planet Earth. The ideal news program would appear all over the world in either an international language or basically in the language of pictures.''
Catherine Wyler, the network's director of cultural and children's programming, says: ``I would hope that we will be continuing our regular drama series, expanding family dramas to a wider age group to include early teen-agers. There's a need for more American history and regular cultural history series, more series that give the essence of the adventure of archaeologists, anthropology, all the social sciences. I'd like to see more avant-garde programming, more classics, and great daylong live internati onal cultural exchanges. And with stereo now becoming available, I expect to see a great resurgence of music on TV.''
Ward Chamberlin, president of station WETA here in Washington, believes that by the year 2000, local stations like his will be originating more programming based on local institutions.
How much PBS funding is enough to allow the network to move ahead rather than stagnate? Well, the total income of PBS from all sources in 1984 was $783.6 million. And, appearing before a congressional appropriations subcommittee earlier this year, Peter Fannon, president of the National Association of Public Television Stations (NAPTS), and David Ives, chairman of the NAPTS board, asked the federal government for $244.1 million for 1988, $264.1 million for 1989, and $286.3 million for 1990.
These amounts would be required to keep the system operating at fiscal 1982 levels. NAPTS indicated that for last year an additional $214 million would have been needed to maintain normal growth.
The current Reagan budget proposals for PBS, which, through congressional pressure, have inched to within 10 percent of the requested figures for the next three years, would nevertheless reduce the appropriation just enough to do great harm in the marginal area of original programming, PBS insiders say.
PBS president Bruce Christensen, along with most of the public-broadcasting community, believes that total income from all sources of $1.5 billion -- almost double the present figure -- is what's needed to allow PBS really to do the job of perfecting its unique brand of enlightening television. Such an investment by Americans would allow PBS, once and for all, to push its fast-forward button and move rapidly into 21st-century excellence in both programming and technology.
Arthur Unger is the Monitor's television critic. Chart: CPB appropriations, Fiscal years 1977 - '87. Source: CPB CURRENT DOLLARS: IN MILLIONS '77 - 103 '78 - 119.2 '79 - 120.2 '80 - 152 '81 - 162 '82 - 172 '83 - 137 '84 - 137.5 '85 - 150.5 '86 - 159.5 '87 - 200