Maintaining Public TV's Quality

ALISTAIR COOKE, the amiable British-American host of public television's "Masterpiece Theatre" for 22 years, will retire at the end of the month. His departure will be much regretted, but it provides an opportunity to comment on the medium that made Mr. Cooke an eagerly awaited Sunday night guest in millions of homes.

Like Alistair Cooke, the Public Broadcasting System has brought a world to viewers that many of them would never have dreamt of experiencing a few decades ago. It has provided a greater opening up of the world to itself, and even to possible worlds beyond.

Television, public and private, is a great educator. But it sometimes is a fraud - even a destroyer of culture. Privately operated television has provided much impressive programming, but public video is clearly the leader in this field.

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Now, as documented recently in this newspaper, public TV is suffering its own recession. High-quality programming is expensive to produce, and many donors simply have less to give now.

It's clear to anyone who watches much public TV that "pledge time" comes around a lot more frequently these days, as expenses go up and donations dwindle.

Laudably, corporate donors have taken up some of the recent slack. At the same time, the modest on-screen credits accorded corporate sponsors have tended to become more commercial and intrusive, with acknowledgments of corporate help becoming more like commercials.

This prompts concern that public TV's integrity might be subtly, though not intentionally, undermined.

Is the answer more government support? In present circumstances, no great increase in government subsidy can be expected.

We have a hunch that there are enough dyed-in-the-wool public TV and radio viewers, as well as business sources, to dig deeper into their pockets or profits and meet most of the need.

To retain that kind of loyalty, public broadcasting will have to work hard to maintain the high-quality programming of which Alistair Cooke has been such a splendid symbol.

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