Commercial TV may help fund PBS -- for its own good

Now that Public Broadcasting Service seems to have survived the impact of cultural cable channels and federal funding cuts, there seems to be a growing realization that PBS should be firmly established as a permanent part of the national cultural heritage.

PBS is rapidly becoming the commercial networks' secret cultural programming weapon, too.

Just as corporate America is forming a PBS support group to make certain that public broadcasting survives the current economic crisis, so a group of representatives of the commercial networks and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) are now engaged in negotiations to ensure the same end.

Going on right now are secret talks to decide how commercial television can help fund PBS. The most likely suggestion is a giant fund-raising special a la ''Night of 100 Stars,'' probably to air on NBC.

Why all of this commercial-network concern about PBS?

Commercial broadcasters may sometimes be concerned citizens and literate TV viewers who recognize the long-range value of quality TV. But there is also the fact that PBS may decide to accept commercial sponsorship of programs as a permanent fund-raising method. This would, of course, put PBS in direct competition with commercial networks for the advertising dollar. The networks don't cotton to that idea.

In addition, whenever networks are criticized for their lack of cultural programming, top executives tend to point to PBS and say, in effect: ''That sort of 'narrowcasting' belongs on public television. We have to aim at mass audiences, because we must make a profit for our stockholders. PBS is where such programming should be scheduled.''

Only recently, ABC board chairman Leonard H. Goldenson made a speech suggesting that the networks should only cover the highlights of political conventions, leaving the gavel-to-gavel coverage to PBS.

How long can the networks cede responsibility for such programming to PBS without being called to account to support PBS financially? After all, it is PBS that is getting the networks off the hook, allowing them to go about their moneymaking ways, despite the fact that the responsibility for some public-service broadcasting is built into their licensing.

The hints that Congress is considering a spectrum-usage tax on FCC-licensed stations which might be used to support PBS has evoked expressions of horror from network executives, who are currently in a battle to free themselves of all regulation.

I talked to PBS president Lawrence Grossman, who says he prefers to remain in the background on this matter, although he is against any direct tax to support PBS, since he thinks it would give Congress too much direct control of PBS. Grant Tinker, NBC board chairman, has told me he believes the networks owe it to the American people to help fund PBS.

The NAB, which several months ago appointed a task force to study the PBS-funding issue, has come up with 30 potential funding alternatives. The top five, in order of their preference:

* Restoration of adequate federal funding.

* Encouragement of commercial stations to assist public stations in their appeals for subscribers and funds.

* A national fund-raising broadcast project.

* Tax checkoffs on individual returns.

* Tax credits for contributions to PBS.

So watch for an escalating relationship between commercial TV and PBS. And don't be surprised if the commercial networks decide to do things their way. Sevareid's 'Enterprise'

Behind the glamor of most successful business ventures there is often hard work and usually dedication. But always enterprise. That's why the name of one of the season's perkiest shows is Enterprise (PBS, Thursdays, starting Jan. 6, 8 :30-9 p.m., check local listingsm ).

''Enterprise'' is one of the most enthralling sitcoms around. Although not strictly in the traditional situation-comedy mold, it features individuals caught in the human comedy of moneymaking. Hosted by Eric Sevareid, the series returns for its second season of case-history business reporting. Using real stories of entrepreneurs, companies, and executives, ''Enterprise'' is a kind of electronic capitalist manifesto, making an engrossing and entertaining, if self-serving, case for the free-enterprise system.

I have screened the first two segments and, although both concern themselves with failure, there is an inspiring quality to both. The premiere episode concerns the last-ditch fight for survival fought by Braniff Airlines executives and employees. The camera gets into the board rooms, eavesdrops on decisionmakings, listens to the field workers proclaim their allegiance while questioning some corporate decisions that affect them. The fact that Braniff finally went bankrupt makes the story of the attempt to avert bankruptcy even more startling.

In the second show, there is an attempt to follow the career of a new country singer - Terri Gibbs. It is not just a matter of singing well, the program delves into ''The Selling of Terri Gibbs'' - the choice of the kind of record to make, the promotion and publicity involved, the attempt to turn her into a superstar - just a bit too soon, as it turns out. Later episodes of ''Enterprise'' include one on ''The Diamond Game,'' the facts about Brazil's economic future, and employee ''buy outs.''

America's business is handled by the show with the slick skill usually reserved for America's mass entertainment. ''Enterprise'' makes entrepreneurial activity so spellbinding that, if you're not careful, it will have you planning to start your own business before the first half-hour is up.

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