Public Television's Balancing Act

PBS stations walk a fine line between corporate sponsorship and noncommerical programming

By , Staff writer of the Christian Science Monitor

WITH government budgets tightening, the future of public television hinges on the success of producers and fund-raisers drawing viewer support, and yes, corporate sponsors.

"Congress, the Federal Communications Commission, and other policymakers have given public television the latitude to go to the marketplace for funding but [in doing so] it runs the risk of making us more commercial," says Bruce Christensen, president of the Public Broadcasting Service.

"We've been very careful to isolate and insulate the production process from our underwriters," Mr. Christensen says, adding "there's a lot of pressure on public television financially...."

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Public television is funded by what industry officials call "a unique blend" of sponsors: foundations, government, individual viewers, corporations, and educational institutions, from school boards to universities. In the future, public television will draw more on corporate support than it has in the past and increase cost-sharing measures such as co-productions with European and Japanese public television.

Public television's struggle to offer a distinct service may jeopardize viewer support. Offering selections from outside the mainstream of commercial television, it is vulnerable to charges from across the political spectrum that it is too liberal or selling out to the business establishment.

THE president of WETA (the public television station serving Washington, Maryland, and Virginia) Sharon Percy Rockefeller, counters charges that advertisers threaten editorial control, saying "that's absolutely not true."

"Our mission is expanding, we're increasing the number of services we offer," says Ms. Rockefeller, whose station, in keeping with the mandate of public stations in communities across the country, covers local issues. Along with Boston's WGBH and New York's WNET, WETA is distinguished as one of the top suppliers of nationally viewed public television programs.

Without corporate support, "we'd take a cut in the quality and the quantity of programs," she says.

Public television is "walking a fine line" with advertising as businesses demand a higher profile as program sponsors, says Edward Coltman, director of policy development and planning at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. CPB was set up by Congress in the 1960s to both receive federal money for public stations and act as a shield against political intrusion into programming.

"Most foundations will be quite happy with a billboard," Mr. Coltman says. But businesses want longer and longer messages. "It's very hard to say no, if you're doing it for one, you've got to do it for the others." He is wary that viewers will be turned off by "the overall clutter on the air - the promotional announcements of upcoming shows, production credits, and corporate sponsors."In a strategic plan prepared by the Boston Consulting Group for CPB, the consultants recommended increased spending on national programming, "the chief value delivered and the chief motivator of donations [that] enjoys a strong competitive position today, but requires substantially increased investment if it is to survive the intensifying competition of focused cable networks."

National programming offers broad appeal, Christensen says and "extends our reach." It "allows us greater dividends and more cost efficiency."

CPB's Coltman is concerned that public television have the finances to "interact more with the public." He wants to offer programs on demand (a service akin to pay-per-view), for example.

Advocates are anxious to see the Clinton Administration reinforce government's commitment to public television. Rockefeller says the president-elect is attuned to the industry.

Christensen points to Clinton's "very effective job" of making Arkansas public television into a classroom tool. "I expect that would play out in a national administration," he says. But the bottom line for Christensen and others concerned about public television is "how effective Mr. Clinton is in controlling the national debt."

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