Public TV faces flap over divvying up funds for making documentaries

There's a great deal of uneasiness among public broadcasting's independent documentarymakers about the ongoing effort to stretch the ''MacNeil-Lehrer Report'' to an hour. According to PBS insiders, American Telephone & Telegraph Company has offered to fund the expanded show to the tune of $9 million, with about $11 million more of the new show's proposed $20 million budget to be provided by PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Lawrence Grossman, PBS president, has indicated that individual PBS stations will not be expected to ante up any more than they are already paying for the half-hour version. This leaves CPB holding the decisive purse strings.

Already, independent documentarians who have found Public Broadcasting is practically the only remaining outlet for their work are predicting that in order to fund the expanded ''MacNeil-Lehrer Report,'' CPB would have to cut down drastically on its funding budget for independent documentaries and minority programming.

Edward Pfister, president of CPB, told the Monitor: ''CPB is determined to nurture the independent voice in public television. If we make a commitment to the expanded 'MacNeil-Lehrer Report' it will in no way jeopardize our commitment to independent documentarians.''

However, with the current cuts in the CPB budget it is difficult to envision how increased support for MacNeil-Lehrer could be accomplished without affecting available funding for everybody else.

Three independently produced documentaries airing next week are prime examples of the kind of informational public affairs programming which may be endangered. Each of the documentaries presents a point of view that might never be aired for large audiences unless PBS time and funding were made available. (It will be necessary for viewers to check local listings for all of them since airing times may vary):

The ''U.S. Chronicle'' series, produced by a consortium of public television stations aross the country, ranging from KCET, Los Angeles, to WNET, New York, and WGBH, Boston, has been one of the major sources of a wide variety of fine independent documentaries. Can We Afford Retirement? (Monday, 9-10 p.m.), hosted by Jim Lehrer as all of them are, is a solid, down-to-earth investigation of social security and the growing over-65 population. It poses the key question succinctly: ''Should all senior citizens be entitled to social-security payments or just those who are in need of the payments?''

Israeli Diary (Monday, 10:30-11 p.m.), produced by independent producer Stanley Rosenblatt for WPBT, FLorida, is an unabashedly partisan survey of the Israeli point of view in regard to the Palestinians. Mr. Rosenblatt, a Miami lawyer, interviews a wide range of Israeli political figures and some of the more extreme positions make the viewer aware of the fact that solutions in the Middle East may prove to be even more difficult than have been imagined. It is clearly an unbalanced program - but nobody proclaims it to be balanced. PBS has pre-empted regularly scheduled programming to make room for this show.

Refugee Road (Tuesday, 10-11 p.m.) chronicles a Laotian family's struggle to resettle in the United States. Presented by WOSU, Columbus, Ohio, this regional documentary is universal in its complex but inspiring tale of the trials and tribulations that resulted when a church congregation in a rural area of Ohio sponsored a Laotian family's relocation. The complicated issues as well as the actual day-to-day problems are handled with delicacy and understanding.

All three of these documentaries represent the kind of material which PBS has been airing more and more - independent nonfiction films originating from all over America and the world. But the big question right now is whether we will be seeing more of them . . . or less.

Now is the time to make your views known to PBS president Lawrence Grossman and CBP president Edward Pfister at their headquarters in Washington, D.C.

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