What's ahead for PBS, Part 2. Funding: Enough to thrive or just survive? A fan who became a policymaker

Sharon Percy Rockefeller, one of Washington's most vocal proponents of public broadcasting, feels she may be the world's champion viewer of ``Sesame Street.'' Mrs. Rockefeller is a board member and former chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), former first lady of West Virginia, the daughter of former Republican Sen. Charles H. Percy of Illinois, the wife of Democratic Sen. John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, and a mother of four. She says:

``I've watched `Sesame Street' with all four of my children . . . so I've watched it for 16 years. I know every episode almost by heart.''

Mrs. Rockefeller, who has served on the CPB board since she was appointed by President Carter in 1977 and reappointed by President Reagan in 1982, says she feels confident now that ``the survival of PBS is no longer at stake, this year or next year or in the year 2000. I think that public television is ingrained in most people's lives -- almost 60 percent of the population watches at least once a week.

``What's difficult is that they don't really know or care how it is structured and funded. It's understandable that all the public cares about is what's on TV. But we have a very curious structure and fragile financing, and that's what keeps the insiders constantly worried.

``I think we will survive as long as we retain our unique differentness. Public broadcasting has to remain as a real alternative to what else is on TV. It has to be appealing in its separateness. It may at times have to sacrifice some of the entertainment value to retain these other values. That's a very hard balancing act, because sometimes if you term it `educational' you're more likely not to interest audiences.''

Rockefeller feels that there is a danger in caring too much about audience numbers, ``about which programs you can raise money around during the annual fund drives. It's interesting to know these facts . . . as long as they don't affect your programming decisions.''

We are sitting in the living room of the Rockefellers' temporary home in Washington's Ambassadors Row, Kalorama Circle, where they are ``camping out'' until their estate here in the capital, The Rocks, is ready for occupancy.

Because she is a registered Democrat, her replacement as chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting by Sonia Landau, an active campaigner for President Reagan, was not unexpected. What was unexpected was Mrs. Rockefeller's reappointment by Reagan as a member of the board at CPB, an organization established by Congress to channel tax dollars into public television and to serve as a buffer against direct political intervention. Rockefeller concedes that it was probably her father's political i nfluence that helped get her reappointed. Now she finds herself constantly at odds with the Republican majority on the CPB.

Asked if she has considered running for office herself, for governor of West Virginia, perhaps, she says, ``Yes. I've shown up in some newspaper polls there. But right now it would be virtually impossible to keep our family intact and have two parents serving in public office. It's just not fair to the children. Running for office is a definite possibility after my children are older.'' In the meantime, Rockefeller's experience at CPB has given her time to form firm positions on most of the issues faci ng PBS:

Advertising on PBS: ``I'm totally against advertising, because it would destroy our differentness. It would virtually destroy our reason for being. We need money, but I'm not so sure that we'd come out with more money in the long run, because it'd double our copyright costs . . . , maybe even triple them. We'd have to renegotiate labor contracts, postal rates, tax status -- all that stands to be jeopardized.

Would people want to contribute to public television as a public service if they know that advertising is one of its bases of revenue?

``The enhanced underwriter credits which are on the air in some areas now are about as far as you can go without calling it advertising. My real problem with any form of advertising is a philosophical one: I think it would totally change the nature and service of programming on public television. It's a change I don't think we should make.''

Channel swaps: ``I'm thoroughly opposed to channel swaps, mainly because the audience reach for PBS would be diminished.''

Funding sources: ``Our largest source of income [is] now, and should be, individuals. Why 9 out of 10 people who watch public television never contribute is a source of total bafflement. I guess it goes back to the fact that television in this country has always been considered a free medium. There is an obligation to support public television just as there is an obligation to support your church or your school. You've got to pay for good services.''

The CPB: ``There must be a way of insulating the funds which come from the federal government so that they are no longer government moneys and we do not have government-controlled public television. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting was formed to be that insulation. We must exist. But I think there are two subtle changes that have taken place recently: The board is now probably less willing to confront Congress with fervent requests for higher appropriations, and there's more willingness to try an advertising experiment.''

Nonetheless, Rockefeller expects, on balance, that there will be progress at PBS by the year 2000. ``There will be more and better programs,'' she predicts. ``There's an unlimited supply of those -- we just have to be able to pay for them.

``If things continue as they are now, morale will be low, and we will lose more and more people to commercial TV. Most people who work in public television remain attracted by the vision and the mission of what it should and can be. It's an idealism which drives you day after day.

``I'm in my 10th year working either with WETA, the West Virginia Educational Broadcasting Authority, or with the CPB. I want to stay in this business. But there must be good-quality television offered to our people -- programming which enlightens, informs, improves their lives. The commercial networks can do that, but it doesn't usually contribute to their increased profits, so they do it only occasionally -- increasingly rarely.

``For instance, children's programming on commercial networks is simply nil,'' she says. ``It's a responsibility which has been turned over to public television. The problem is that the money doesn't get transferred with the responsibility . . . .''

She sees PBS as a ``re-energizer,'' explaining: ``We get into ruts as adults, doing the same thing every day. Even one hour of being lifted out of your own world, looking with perspective on someone else's world, is a very rewarding experience. It gives a new perspective on how you are living your own life and the choices you are making. That's a dimension that's very hard to define, but public television does get to people. It lifts you up; it doesn't press you, degrade you. There are not very many experiences which can do that for you so conveniently, no less, in your own home.'' 30{et

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