Recently the Temporary Commission on Alternative Financing for Public Telecommunications released its final report to Congress, which created this commission to offer solutions to the problem of funding public broadcasting. Public broadcasting now finds itself in perilous financial straits, and competition from such new communication technologies as cable television, videodiscs, and direct broadcast satellites carves up a large media pie into much smaller chunks.
The commission considered a number of options, including a national tax credit for donors, an excise tax on new TV sets, and limited commercial advertising, but it concluded that continued federal funding was preferred.
Resolving the public broadcasting financial problem is as much a political as an economic quagmire. It transcends the current administration, and the political affiliations and ideologies of Lyndon Johnson and succeeding Presidents, as well as the Congresses working with them. Fifteen years ago, Johnson's Great Society program easily won the enactment of the first Public Broadcasting Act. That began the transition from an educational broadcasting system to one with broader goals for public enrichment through cultural and informational programming that was not being provided by commercial networks.
While the Reagan administration cannot be criticized for the historical baggage inherited by public broadcasting, it nevertheless remains in the position of offering leadership that needs to be provided. The creation of the special commission, chaired by FCC Commissioner James Quello, a Reagan appointee , was a salutary step. But in light of financial reality, the administration should take a hard look at its overall policy toward public broadcasting. It must be prepared to respond to the conclusion of the commission's report - namely that ''there is no substitute for continued federal support.''
The Reagan administration approach in other areas of domestic policy has been to encourage a reduction of government involvement and to seek a solution based upon marketplace competition. While this may work in the energy area, for example, it cannot easily be applied when analyzing educational and cultural institutions such as schools, museums, libraries, and symphonies. None of these are purely marketplace goods that we, as a nation, would let die if there were not sufficient support through commercial sponsorship or private donations. Public broadcasting, which combines elements of all these through the airing of instructional programming, drama, documentaries, and musical events, should likewise be evaluated in terms beyond mere economic utility.
The administration, Congress, and other arms of government should identify the various viewing audiences and evaluate how public broadcasting can enhance social programs such as education and the performing arts. National goals are already embodied in the charters of the Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. These can and should be restated as national goals for public broadcasting as well, including the enrichment of education, the honoring of heterogeneity in our communities, and the promotion of music, dance, theater, and film.
If a true cost-benefit analysis of public broadcasting is to be made, serious attention should be devoted to the social benefits that public broadcasting can produce. Only then can a proper calculus be made about the appropriate role of federal funding. Regardless of the final financial calculation, the process of weighing the choices would create a much-needed national dialogue about public broadcasting, as well as a public record that voters could respond to through the electoral process.
Such a commitment also would signal to the rest of the world that the United States, like the United Kingdom, France, West Germany, and Japan before it, has carefully evaluated the mark that public television can make on society. The policies that are established now represent the last chance to shape a public broadcasting system that reflects the values we share as a society and is responsive to the new values that the future will bring.