What's ahead for PBS. Public TV: Promise bright, future cloudy.
Washington — IT'S ``people feed'' time for the Public Broadcasting Service. The year is 2000.
The time is 11:59 p.m. on Sunday. The family is asleep in the bedrooms.
In the living room, the pre-set videocassette recorder lights up silently and clicks on at the stroke of midnight.
The VCR is busy recording six PBS cultural programs, including ``Masterpiece Theatre'' and ``Great Performances,'' which the family can schedule for itself in the coming week. Every night from midnight till 6 a.m., PBS ``feeds'' its prime-time shows to audiences who have long since refused to allow the network to schedule their viewing from its headquarters here in Washington. Now cultural programs are transmitted during sleepy-time hours on Sunday, wildlife programs on Mondays, and so on, to be recor ded by viewers who will then watch the shows at times convenient for them.
What airs during regular 6 a.m.-to-midnight hours?
Timely news and public-affairs programming, much of which cannot be anticipated. When news is breaking, when important issues are being discussed, PBS is certain to have in-depth programs on the air every day.
This is one possible scenario for how the nation's 15-year-old experiment in publicly funded television will work by the turn of the 21st century, according to Suzanne Weil, senior vice-president of programming at PBS. Ms. Weil says that it is just one of many such scenarios. Others involve such ideas as theme nights (an entire evening of opera or documentaries on South America), and multistations (three PBS channels in most cities, for example, with one devoted to cultural programming, another to publ ic affairs, and the third to education).
The chances of a special VCR feed are greater on PBS than on commercial networks, because PBS is in the business of ``selling'' its programming to viewers, while the commercial networks are in the business of selling viewers to advertisers. And advertisers know that, given the opportunity, VCR viewers will zap the commercial right out of their videotapes, thereby nullifying their value to the advertiser -- and to the network.
Putting way-out possibilities aside, Weil, like most of her colleagues interviewed for this series, insists that PBS programming in the 21st century will probably be similar to today's -- but, they hope, with more funding to do it even better.
For viewers who have come to depend upon public television for their serious TV-watching, it's startling to realize that PBS, as we know it today, is only in its 15th year.
Says Weil: ``Public television has just begun to become a force in this country in a comprehensive way . . . . Till now [its impact] has been unmeasurable. The momentum has really gathered, and now I don't think the public will ever let us go. There will always be the need for this other voice.''
Without hesitation, Weil says the major accomplishment of PBS in its short history has been ``the broadening of cultural interests in America.'' She continues: ``One telecast of a Verdi opera is reaching more people than it did in the opera house in all of Verdi's lifetime. We turn high culture into popular culture, but not by changing the product. . . . Its very telecast on PBS suddenly gets it way beyond the elite. . . . When yo u make something available to 96 percent of the population and 5 or 6 million people choose to watch it, it becomes popular culture. . . .
``But elitism is not a pejorative in my mind. . . . What it means is excellence, and what we're trying to do is excellence.''
PBS executives as well as political figures and observers of the television industry seem to agree that PBS has built for itself an enormously broad constituency. Sen. Barry Goldwater (R) of Arizona, for example, is a leading supporter, and US Rep. Timothy Wirth (D) of Colorado, who heads the communications subcommittee, beats the drums for PBS.
If there is any disagreement over the future of PBS, it concerns the question of where funding will come from.
Patrick J. Buchanan, President Reagan's communications chief and a veteran of the the Nixon administration, is just about the only top official who would like to do away with PBS altogether.
David J. Markey, administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the office responsible for executive-branch policy, says the Reagan administration's attempts to hold down PBS appropriations did not stem from any antagonism toward public broadcasting, as was apparent in the Nixon era. He says they were merely consistent with overall attempts to slow down federal spending. As evidence of a continuing commitment by the administration, Mr. Markey cites President Reagan's st atement that ``public broadcasting constitutes an important national resource.'' Some supporters go even further. A Carnegie Commission report once dubbed PBS a ``national treasure,'' and that description has been adopted by Representative Wirth and other pro-PBS political activists.
Now that after 15 years the system has reached an undisputed level of excellence and acceptance, PBS planners are beginning to think about its future, at least when they aren't so pressed by immediate budgetary concerns that such thinking is impossible.
Peter Downey, a senior vice-president of PBS, characterizes the system as having ``reached mid-life crisis.'' Mr. Downey takes pride in the fact that, in a decade and a half, ``the infant PBS has progressed through adolescence and early maturity with great success . . . much to its own surprise. So many goals have been reached so fast that the organization, busy with worrying about funding each year, is suddenly faced with the realization that mid-life is here . .MDN M . without a proper plan to face the future -- and without proper funding.''
The PBS executives interviewed by the Monitor for this series often found questions about the shape of things in the year 2000 almost as outlandish as asking them about the year 4000. ``We're worried about 1986 and 1987 -- that's what's on our mind,'' was the common response.
Despite the fact that there are already some rather halfhearted movements toward future planning at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the network itself, and the National Association of Public Television Stations (NAPTS), it is apparent that there is a need for a joint effort by all those organizations to plan for the next century rather than the next year.
Richard Gref'e, director of policy planning and development at the CPB, only recently set up ``television futures'' meetings to begin some planning. Mr. Gref'e told the Monitor that CPB and PBS executives are so concerned about the present that they don't spend much time thinking about the future, at least beyond three years. Yet he is convinced that there is no need for radical change in either programming or organization, although an increasing involvement in educational technology seems to be essent ial.
The relationship between PBS and the CPB, which was established by Congress to act as the nonpolitical conduit for channeling government money to PBS, is excellent, he says. ``If we were able to step back and create an organizational structure for public broadcasting that would enable it to survive through the 21st century, we would invent something that looks awfully [similar] to what we have today,'' he adds.
Recognizing the need for more planning, the NAPTS recently recruited one of the field's most respected pioneers, Hartford Gunn, to study long-range planning, among other things.
``The system has proven itself, so it is not going to change much,'' says Mr. Gunn, who had been general manager of station WGBH in Boston for 13 years before serving from 1970 to '76 as the first president of PBS. ``There may be more enhanced underwriting or advertising or whatever they will call it, but basically it will be similar to what we see now.
``But the one thing PBS cannot stand is a steady fall in the quality of programming,'' he continues. ``Certainly we are seeing a fallback next year . . . . There are no original series of the quality of `Cosmos' or `The Brain.' But that is due to the funding problems of two or three years ago. Now, the immediate problem is to get the funding back up again and develop more devices within the system so more money is allocated for development of programming .''
Although Gunn believes that the year 2000 will see a strong PBS, he is aware that the network operates in an increasingly competitive communications environment and must not mark time, as it seems to be doing this year.
``PBS cannot afford to stagnate,'' he says, ``because something else -- cable or DBS [direct broadcast satellite, which beams a vast array of programs to anyone with a satellite dish antenna] or whatever -- will come along and steal the audiences. If we were to have three or four years more with very little growth, you might well see the system eroded by some other system.''
Peter Fannon, president of NAPTS, believes there is enough interest in various types of PBS programming for more than one broadcast outlet in every community. ``One outlet would do in-school programming; another could do adult education; we could provide hours of `Nova'-like programs on another channel, cultural performances -- there's an unending appetite for well-produced material.''
He concedes, however, that finances are not available to do even half the programming that PBS wants to take on right now.
Mr. Fannon envisions that by the year 2000 the 309 stations now associated with PBS may have grown to nearly twice that number. Already the network represents the largest collection of interconnected TV stations in the world. He points out that PBS is not really a network in the traditional sense, but a program service. By the year 2000, he expects, the PBS signal will reach every potential viewer in America rather than the 96 percent it now reaches.
But he points out that when a committee was formed in 1981 to study funding methods, it concluded that the combination of federal, state, corporate, and membership funds now in use was indeed the best option. It suggested only that the Federal Communications Commission loosen its rules to permit experiments with enhanced underwriting credits of various lengths.
``I know it sounds a bit high-minded, but the truth is we are trying to enrich the lives of our viewers,'' Fannon continues. He also cites another role ``which we don't get enough credit for: We challenge the rest of the communications world to use TV better.''
PBS president Bruce Christensen also believes that by the year 2000 PBS will be offering a number of additional programming services to augment the primary service it now delivers.
``We will have expanded in the delivery of direct satellite broadcasts to business, schools, and hospitals, Mr. Christensen says. ``There will be various new kinds of public-service programming, some of it adult education and some for high school.
``I think PBS audiences will continue to grow, and we may find by the beginning of the 21st century that there is less of a gap between the noncommercial networks and the commercial services. That would mean their audiences continue to decrease as ours continues to grow. [Our programming] will be based on education, culture, the arts, and they will have to move more into sports, movies, entertainment to draw mass audiences. We will continue to reach specific audiences looking for quality programs.''
Mr. Christensen rejects the hypothetical argument that commercial television has a special obligation to support public TV in some way because the specialized programming aired on PBS saves the commercial networks the expense of small-audience airings. ``I don't think it's a commercial network obligation; it's a societal obligation,'' he says. ``Our society must decide for itself if it wants access to the kinds of programs that will enlighten, entertain, and bring the best of our civilization into their
living rooms.'' He does see room for some cooperation with commercial TV, however. ``On the drawing board,'' he explains, ``is a project to promote PBS with [paid] ads on commercial networks -- and for some years there has been a plan for the networks or independent stations to put on a telethon to support PBS.''
Christensen says he expects government funding will still be an important component of the PBS budget in the year 2000. ``There is nothing inherently wrong or tainted with federal or state money if it is adequately insulated,'' he says. ``It just isn't enough. Corporate funding is up 25 percent over 1983, but that is not the answer. I think it would be fine for the future of PBS if one-third of its money comes from subscribers, one-third from corporate underwriters and maybe even direct ads, one- third from federal and state appropriations.''
Despite the current problems of PBS caused by decreased federal funding, Christensen is certain that PBS will survive and be found thriving in the year 2000.
``If broadcasting is around, PBS will be there, too,'' he says. ``More and more Americans are discovering each day that PBS is truly a `national treasure,' . . . and I have faith that our society simply will not allow this national treasure to fade away because of lack of funds.''
Tomorrow: Funding -- enough to thrive or just survive?