Public stations' battle for funds: a report from the front

Although it looks as if Public Broadcasting Service has managed to beat off the first wave of cable incursions into its culture territory, the battle for survival is still not a certainty.

As CBS Cable and the Entertainment Channel announce they are folding, PBS records new highs in viewership. But alas, new lows in federal funding aid.

Some of the major-city stations are in grave financial difficulty - the Los Angeles public TV station has already cut its original productions way back. And New York's WNET, which supplies around 40 percent of all prime-time PBS programming, has just made a desperate appeal to its members for a $1 million emergency fund.

In the first three days since WNET/New York sent out its fund-raising letter, more than $300,000 has arrived in the mails. The station insists it needs this ''bridge financing'' to make certain it can continue to originate programs for PBS. Two of the best-known programs it originates are ''The MacNeil/Lehrer Report,'' and ''Great Performances.'' But a shortage of funding may imperil completion of such projected WNET series as ''The Brain'' and ''Civilization and the Jews.''

In a personal letter to 300,000 New York area WNET subscribers, John Jay Iselin, the state president, appealed for special emergency gifts of $50 and up to see the station through the next few weeks. This special request will not replace the normal WNET on-air drive for new membership scheduled to begin on March 5. Mr. Iselin said his goal for that drive is $2.5 million and 60,000 new members.

In an interview, he said there would be an all-round tightening of belts within his administration - staff layoffs, wage freezes, and a cutback in some future projects. In addition, ''The Dial,'' the PBS program guide that WNET publishes and provides for other major PBS program areas, will have to pay its own way.

Amid reports that bank loans are coming due and that ''The Dial'' has been a major strain on the WNET financial setup, Mr. Iselin attributes the current money crunch to ''Federal cutbacks, the severe economic recession, and skyrocketing costs.'' He says that the station has been unfairly accused of profligate spending and he hopes the response to his letter will indicate a ''vote of confidence.'' Of pride and love

The remarkable story of Kojo Odo, a bachelor father of 18 physically and emotionally handicapped adopted children in Harlem is told with loving care in one of the most unusual documentaries of the year: Children of Pride (PBS, Monday, 8-9 p.m., check local listings)m.

Produced and directed by Carol Langer for ''Frontline,'' the documentary series produced by a five-station PBS consortium, ''Children of Pride'' is an uncompromising hour of unrelenting love, respect, and appreciation of the value of all human beings. In cinema veritem style, the documentary offers very little in the way of explanation, simply allowing the flow of affection among the 19 family members to tell its own story.

Although it is inspiring on an emotional level, the documentary disturbed me on a completely rational level. How does Mr. Odo pay the enormous expenses involved? What sort of person is he? Why does he wear gaudy bracelets and nose and ear jewelry? All sorts of questions which, obviously, have been answered to the satisfaction of the social workers who allowed him to adopt the children. But why is the viewer denied these facts? Is it simply because the filmmaker chose the veritem form which does not allow for a narration?

I asked these questions of Miss Langer and she told me that it had been her plan to make it a 110-minute documentary, but it was necessary to cut it to 56 minutes to fit the one-hour format of ''Frontline.'' She was not complaining about ''Frontline,'' - in fact she was very grateful for the showcase, but she pointed out the limited markets for documentary films these days. If there had been more air time, she assured me, there would have been a bit more in the way of expository sequences. As the show stands now, the Jessica Savitch introduction does not give nearly enough background information.

Perhaps the problem could be solved if ''Children of Pride'' were given a theatrical release in its 110-minute form. Public response to the TV show could accomplish that. Until then, however, the 56-minute version is a stimulating and inspiring tale of what perseverance and persistence can accomplish when combined with love.

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