PBS ponders how to fill Larry Grossman's shoes

The search is on in earnest! Public Broadcasting Service, on the verge of losing Lawrence Grossman (PBS head since 1976, he leaves officially Feb. 10 to become president of NBC News) has retained an executive search firm to assist in the search for a new president.

In the interim, until the annual meeting of the PBS board of directors in March 1984, PBS senior vice-president Michael E. Hobbs is acting as chief administrative officer.

MSL International, the search firm, is working under the direction of a five-member PBS search committee appointed by the PBS executive board. One of the members of this PBS search committee is himself considered a possible nominee for PBS president: David O. Ives, president of WGBH/Boston and chairman of the board of the National Association of Public Television Stations.

PBS partisans from all regions have been volunteering suggestions for candidates. A few weeks ago I suggested that the ideal PBS-nurtured individual for the job would be Bill Moyers, now firmly tied to CBS. In a private conversation with him recently, he indicated to me that he was not available right now, but that if it were ever possible, the PBS presidency would be a job in which he feels he could do an enormous amount of good work. So it would seem to me that further conversation with the search committee is in order.

Another ''way out'' suggestion, admittedly originating right here, is Grant Tinker, chairman and chief executive officer of NBC and the man who brought Larry Grossman to NBC. Mr. Tinker, an executive with much experience with quality television through his MTM connections, might just be ready to bid adieu to the seeming quagmire he has found himself in at third-place NBC. PBS would be a prestigious escape route. And Tinker would bring a breath of the best of commercial TV to noncommercial PBS.

While there have been some suggestions that the new president should come from outside the PBS establishment, there are two names within PBS in addition to Ives's which rank high on everybody's list of candidates: Bruce Christensen, president of the National Association of Public Television Stations; and Ward Chamberlin, president of WETA/Washington, D.C. Mr. Christensen has played a very active role in making certain that the voices of local PBS stations are heard at the national level and thus he is quite well known within PBS. Chamberlin, on the other hand, is known mainly through his station's Washington-originated programming. A chat with Chamberlin

Ward Chamberlin is a tall, spare figure in a sparsely furnished office in the concrete egg crate which is Washington's L'Enfant Plaza. He looks a bit like an actor playing the part of a distinguished lawyer - tall, handsome, conservatively attired but with the glint of enthusiasm and creativity in his eye giving away the masquerade.

As a matter of fact, Chamberlin was a lawyer with General Dynamics Corporation for many years before he became involved in the formation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, then as executive vice-president of WNET/NY before he accepted the job as president of WETA in Washington, D.C., seven years ago. WETA has become the major producer of Washington-oriented television programs: ''Washington Week in Review,'' ''The Lawmakers,'' ''In Performance at the White House,'' ''Smithsonian World.'' And in January WETA started a new series, ''Congress: We the People,'' with Edwin Newman as host, which will be airing nationally in the fall. In addition, WETA is co-producer of the ''MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.'' ''The Lawmakers,'' one of Congress's own favorites, has been having great funding problems, which recently have been temporarily alleviated.

Chamberlin comments that ''We're investigating whether we can do a show about this country's court system, but unfortunately courts are not as televisable as Congress.''

He feels it is incumbent upon a Washington PBS station to focus on Washington. ''This is our hometown and our obligation is to feature the interesting things here not only to the community but to the rest of the country. We did wonderful pieces on the Air and Space Museum and on the East Wing of the National Gallery. And now 'Smithsonian World.' It is our responsibility.''

WETA has the nation's highest number of individual memberships in relationship to its viewing audience - about 25 percent. ''But we don't have any corporate support here in Washington,'' he says sadly. ''There just aren't that many big corporations headquartered here. But we have a tremendously loyal audience of about 550,000 households.''

Although Chamberlin declines to make a specific pitch for the PBS job, he is quite willing to talk about his feelings that the job should be filled from within PBS.

''Anybody from outside would think the job is bigger, more important than it is. It's not like National Public Radio where they produce as well as distribute programs. PBS distributes only. The job is one of mediation between producers fighting for air time, scheduling and taking some important leadership in what new programs ought to be supported.

''I don't mean to denigrate the job; it's terribly important to those of us in PBS to have somebody in it who is darn good . . . as good as Larry (Grossman) has been. I hate to see him go.''

What areas should PBS focus on?

''We've got to focus on the big important series which take 3 . . . 4 . . . 5 years to produce. The Vietnam series, for instance, was a tremendous accomplishment. WETA is involved now in the beginnings of a history-of-Russia series. And a co-production with BBC on the history of black Africa. These series take a huge amount of money and time and the most creative producers. Getting the necessary development money is very difficult. The PBS president can help.

''After all, nobody else will cover those stories . . . certainly not network television. Public Television is the only place for this kind of series and that's the role we must continue to play. News coverage on commercial television is getting to be more and more an entertainment vehicle. We must reverse that trend on PBS.''

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