Public TV executive talks of cable, funding, and fending off commercials

In less than a year since Edward J. Pfister was appointed president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting by its board of directors, he has emerged as an inexhaustible fighter for PBS, for CPB, and for the rights of the American TV viewer.

Recently, when he came here from his Washington office on CPB business, we had breakfast together at his hotel to discuss the future of public broadcasting.

Mr. Pfister, himself a 22-year veteran of public broadcasting, was still exulting in the fact that Congress had just restored some of the funding that had previously been cut. The enthusiasm and optimism of this backer of the nation's right to high-quality public broadcasting were evident. And he was prepared with reasonable and succinct answers to even the most delicate questions.

Many people still don't understand the function of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Can Pfister clear that up?

''Our function is to insulate public broadcasting from undue pressure from the federal government, to allocate federal funding, to nurture the enterprises of public television and public radio. PBS is mainly a scheduling and promoting organization for the stations.

''CPB formed PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) and NPR (National Public Radio). I believe that federal funding - around 20 to 25 percent of our operating budget across the country - is the crucial difference between excellence and mediocrity.''

Mr. Pfister is understandably pleased by the partial reversal of the PBS budget cuts. How was that accomplished?

This former Latin teacher and public broadcasting station executive smiles broadly. ''Congress recognizes that PBS has a great and powerful constituency. They themselves are part of it - congressmen are men with families who know the impact of television. They know that the issue of whether we will have a public broadcasting entity is a crucial societal issue that goes beyond just the pressure of the stations back home.

''In Britain the government remits a billion and a half dollars a year for BBC. In Japan the government commits up to $1.2 billion per year. Is our own society really ready to admit that it cannot afford $250 to $300 million a year for public broadcasting?''

Is Mr. Pfister a Reagan appointee and do his views reflect the administration attitude toward public broadcasting?

There is fire in his eyes and one understands what it might be to like to stand against him. ''No,'' he says emphatically, ''I am not a Reagan appointee - the board of directors of the CPB appointed me. They are a nonpolitical instrument, although I assume the people President Reagan appoints to the board are relatively representative of his point of view. (The 15-member board is appointed by the president of the United States; no more than eight may be from one political party.)

''But let me be clear about this: My ideas are not representative of the Reagan administration; they are representative of my own 22 years of experience.''

How does the CPB president feel about the various suggestions, plans, experiments to bring commercials to PBS?

No pussyfooting here. ''I think it could be the death knell of public broadcasting.

''My single greatest anxiety is not what outside adversaries will do but what we may do to ourselves. I fear that stations are going to see an opportunity to get more money easily and rush pellmell into the commercial arena and later look up and find that we have turned on ourselves to survive. With commercial sponsorship, very slowly, almost imperceptibly, people will begin to make programming decisions for different reasons.

''PBS has now worked its way to where we allow corporate logos and identification. The door keeps opening more and more. Commercialization could turn out to be fatal for public broadcasting.''

How does he respond to the criticism that so much of PBS programming is foreign, mainly British?

He throws up his hands. ''First of all, our airwaves are not dominated by British products. People have reached that conclusion because so many of the British programs are the attention getters. But I would never apologize for programming good foreign shows. I think that it is part of public television's job to bring the best of world television to the attention of American viewers.''

There have been predictions that cultural cable channels would lure viewers away from PBS. Is that happening?

''The evidence now is that cable is helping us. I believe we have nothing to fear from cable. We are reaching more and more homes, getting more support. And I don't see people - subscribers or advertisers - lining up to pay the cost of some cultural programming which is not very different from the programming PBS has been presenting free.''

What lies ahead for PBS and NPR?

''I think we are about to have the best year ever for both. But it is not the year ahead I worry about - it is 1984. Because that is when the cuts from $172 to $130 million will begin to be felt. We are already being forced to put less money into the development pocket.''

Can the loyal PBS viewer do anything to help?

''CPB put aside $5 million several months ago and we are about to ask the PBS and NPR stations to challenge their viewers and listeners to match that money on a 1:3 basis. For every three dollars they raise above their normal growth curve, we will give them an extra dollar.

''If they can do that - or draw enough attention to this effort over the next 12 months - we will then cut deeply into the federal reductions because the 1:3 program balances out to be $20 million. So supporters of PBS and NPR can do something besides write their congressmen - they can give more money.''

This critic believes that sometime in the future we will look back at the 1970s as ''the golden age of public television.'' Does Mr. Pfister believe the American public has been getting the most out of government CPB/PBS appropriations?

That serious and determined look returns: ''I happen to believe that our past season has been the height of public television broadcasting since its inception less than 15 years ago. Imagine what the same enterprise could do if it had $250 million a year.

''It would be a sad day for our society - and for future generations of Americans - if we ever have to admit that we cannot afford to support noncommercial, nonprofit public institutions like PBS and NPR. They have already become an integral part of our cultural and educational heritage. I believe they will survive this period of uncertainty - and future generations of Americans will be grateful.''

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