How public TV looks from the West: a challenge to the system

The public broadcasting view from the West has its own unique perspective, I discovered this past week when I participated in a seminar for Western PBS Program Managers sponsored by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

The CPB organizes such regional conferences on a regular basis and plans to continue doing so (unless the current economy-minded administration cuts its funding, that is). I was there ostensibly to speak on "The View Of Public Television Programming From The Outside," but also to interact with the other attendees.

These program managers -- responsible for the selection of programs to be aired on their stations mainly in California, but also in Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin -- distrust what they consider to be the Eastern PBS establishment. That means stations like WNET/NY, WETA/Washington and WGBH/Boston, which originate a great deal of the original programming through their ability to accumulate large sums of money through viewer contributions and underwriter funds. In addition, there is the perception, valid or not, that CPB too often listens to these "establishment stations" and too often funds programs which these favored stations demand, in defiance of the desires of the smaller, often Western, stations.

One continuing bone of contention is the desire of the "establishment stations" for national news programming at the same time that many other smaller stations believe that the American viewing public gets adequate national coverage on commercial stations. They would like to receive additional funding which would allow them to concentrate on better local news coverage, something which is often too expensive for small stations to afford. But I found a general feeling that more and more the role of PBS in the framework of American television will have to be local news, science, and public affairs. As commercial TV and cable TV go where the advertiser income lies, it will remain for PBS to find where the public interest lies and concentrate on serving those needs.

But how? With the threat of decreased government funding through CPB, with the competition in the cultural market of cable and Pay-TV systems, there is the danger that the budgetary needs of PBS stations may be overlooked.

So, as not-for-profit program managers, many are torn with the sometimes conflicting and always ambivalent desire to get "bigger numbers" (larger audiences) in order to justify their own existence, in order to serve more people, in order to be able to demand more programming money through viewer contributions and corporate, state and CPB funding. Some of the Western managers sneer at WNET/NY's seeming compromise solution of scheduling more popular "low-brow" movie series, while others look longingly towards that kind of partial solution.

But, ambivalent as I found them, it was a great pleasure to be among a fine, sensitive, intelligent group of people dedicated to finding ways to better serve their communities --rather than mainly their advertisers, as is often the case with commercial television.

In many ways, my presence there constituted an unfair exchange, since I had much more to learn from them than they could possibly learn from me. What could I tell them?

Well, aside from a few minor observations about specific programs and a few perhaps even more minor generalities, I said that I was appalled that they were allowing public television's most impressive symbol -- Bill Moyers -- to slip through their fingers. Mr. Moyers is not now scheduled to return to PBS when his current series ends. He insists that he needs more funding to accomplish what he wants to accomplish well. It seems to me that not enough investigation by WNET, by PBS, by CPB has gone into convincing him to stay with public broadcasting. He is one of the few authentically PBS personalities -- others such as Robert McNeil and Dick Cavett are essentially former commercial network people.

I also told than that after chatting with many major cable-TV programming people, I was convinced that within ten years American TV viewers will be finding the same quality level of programming on cable that they are now finding on commercial TV, most often produced by the same people. What little infusion of new blood there is I find coming from PBS. But as those commercially oriented cable systems come to realize that even on cable it is numbers that count, the switch will be away from quality and toward mass-oriented pop entertainments. Meantime, PBS will be suffering because it simply will not be able to compete with the money that cable and Pay-TV will be able to offer performers and cultural organizations.

So for a few years, or perhaps only months, the public will be lulled into thinking it is paying for quality programming forever, but will soon learn that the quality will last only until the quantity arrives. Then, they may find themselves paying, directly or indirectly, for second-rate cultural programs, interrupted by advertizing. And they will long for the top-quality, advertizingless free programming they used to receive on their local PBS stations. But the danger is that by then PBS may have faded away, while the promised glory of cable TV may have been converted into the lowest-common-denominator TV we have learned to accept on commercial TV.

I urged them not to let that happen, by somehow keeping local PBS stations alive with new directions, new responsibilities in areas not served by other TV stations or systems.

Before leaving, I asked for permission to view some of the videotapes which had been brought to the seminar by the program managers. The quality of the programming was extraordinarily high -- on the whole as high, if not higher, than most "quality" commercial programming on the air today and certainly the equal, if not superior to much of the PBS local programming originating at some of the farther East "establishment" PBS channels. Those programs, plus the many conversations I had with the various programming managers convinced me that the future of PBS programming in the West is in good hands. The major problem lies in the funding of their programs. But many Western PBS stations are accepting yearly pledges from contributing listeners and billing them monthly, or arranging for bank transfers monthly.

PBS is taking a constructive look at starvation.

Solutions to the problem of the world's poor and hungry millions, narrated by Fritz Weaver, are examined in a unique film, "Edge of Survival" (PBS, Monday, 10 -11 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats). Shot on location in India, Brazil, Ecuador, Enland and the US, this program includes important interviews and offers some sane and some far-out solutions to the daily problem of one-fourth o f mankind.

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