Public television is suffering from a bad case of Reaganomics, complicated by high technology. As funding from the government via the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endownment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and public and private foundations dries up in the economic drought of tight money, PBS finds itself in a double bind. It must also cope with the new technologies of cable, direct satellite transmission, and pay-TV, which threaten to drain off much commercial underwriting. And unless corporate funding comes up with increased underwriting, the future of PBS looks bleak.
On most new cable channels -- Cable News Network and CBS Cable, for instance -- there is time allotted for honest-to-goodness sponsor advertising rather than the mere underwriter identification allowed on PBS programming by the Federal Communications Commission. A recent FCC ruling attempted to aid money-short PBS affiliates, however, by allowing underwriters to show logos and use some descriptive phrase identifying themselves.
The National Association of Broadcasters has appealed that ruling on the basis that it would be allowing unfair competition in the world of commercials. Undismayed, PBS has gone right ahead to act on the fuling, and the July 4 Boston PBS officials in charge of searching for underwriters assure me that there are changes taking place. Prudential Insurance Company, Chubb Group of Insurance Companies, Montgomery Ward, AT&T, as well as the Johnson & Johnson Company are planning to move deeper into PBS funding.
Why? What does corporate America have to gain by underwriting Public Broadcasting Service programs? The answer is simple: prestige.
Almost any underwriter of a PBS prgoram automatically takes on the "high tone ," egghead image of the network itself. While PBS shuns being called "elitist," the fact is that very little of its programming is what would ordinarily be considered "low brow." Many underwriters spend as much if not more money promoting in print ads their underwriting of a PBS show than they actually spend on the show itself.
Sometimes a corporation looks ahead to changing or modifying its future image. Johnson & Johnson, manufacturers of health care goods, has just decided to become the sole underwriter for the next two years of "Nova," one of PBS's most popular and prestigious series. Through an official spokesman, James E. Burke, chairman of the board, cited his company's growing role in high technology and medical research, adding that "we admire the consistent high quality of Nova's programs."
Thus, it is apparent that a company which is attempting to focus public attention to its high technology rather than, say, its baby powder, might every well decided to underwrite a quality science show like "Nova."
Many Public Broadcasting executives like to point out that "only" about 10 percent of PBS national programming is funded by commercial organizations. The rest comes from the fereral government, local and state governments, state colleges, foundations, subscribers, and auctions. So, PBS could very well survive without corporate funders -- especially now ay viewer awarence of the need to support there local stations increases.
Top corporate funders of PBS in 1981 Company in Millions 1. Atlantic Richfield Company $10.7 2. Exxon Corporation 6.4 3. Mobil Corporation 4.4 4. Gulf Oil Corporation 1.6 5. Shell Companies Foundation 1.25 6. Hallmark Cards Inc. 1.2 7. Texaco Inc. 1.09 8. Sun Company Inc. 1.0 9. Colonial Penn Group .8 10. Mcdonald's local Restaurant Association .68
Whether free PBS will be able to survive competition of the various forthcoming cultural cable channels such as ARTS, CBS Cable, RCTV, Bravo remains to be seen. to prepare for the great cable cultrue rush, PBS itself is in the process of forming a pay channel so that it, too, may be able to present top cultural events for additional fees. Corporate advertisers are still wathching carefully.
Only a short time ago CBS Cable announced Exxon would be sponsoring a live season of Bernstein conducting Beethoven, which would probably later be shown it presage the dind of "tierred programming viewer can expect in the future.
There are a number of ways, other than national underwriting, that corporate America can contribute to the support of PBS.
Many companies prefer to underwrite local programming. This can be accomplished with much smaller expenditures. Thousands of hours of local PBS programming the aired through local underwriting grants -- something the underwriter hopes local citizens will be eepeically aware of Some companies help broaden the financial support of public television by matching gifts from company employees. Quaker Oats, Citicorp, Kimberly-Clark and time Inc. currently have matching programs.
And, of course, if you are PBS viewer, you are well aware of the auctions conducted over some 80 public television stations from March through November. Many corporations donate products as well as personnel to the effort. This type of fund raising may seem to be an imposition on many PBS viewers, but the auctions have proven to be an important part of the overall PBS funding operation.
While government grants are down and will probably go lower, early indications point to individual PBS enthusiasts and concerned corporate America stepping in to fill the breech to make certain that PBS survives the rough years ahead and continues to be an integral part of the cultural scene -- long after some of the temporary cultural trends fade from the broadcast scene in favor of lowest-common-denominator programming.
Ironically -- or is it inevitable? -- it will probably be the same companies which underwrite public broadcasting with a few million which at the same time pour billions into their support of mass-audience commercial programming.