Public Television's Needs

``SESAME Street,'' ``The MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour,'' ``Great Performances'' - they're all products of public broadcasting. These refreshing alternatives to the commercial medium have become such fixtures that viewers often take them for granted. But actually their presence is the result of hard-won congressional funding, secured amid almost constant, unproductive ideological battles waged from both ends of the spectrum. Public TV in its present form, for instance, has been called timid and pro-establishment by many liberal critics. Conservatives - especially during the Reagan administration - have charged that the medium reflects the liberal biases of producers and writers, with some people calling for the end of all public funding.

Politics aside, the medium needs help. It suffers from divided and inefficient national leadership. To correct this, proposals are periodically offered. The latest - and it's a radical one - comes from the Working Group for Public Broadcasting. It would do away entirely with the current system by abolishing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), an agency created by Congress 20 years ago to dispense public funds. The plan would also nearly double public broadcasting's support by replacing federal money with a tax on factory sales of electronic equipment.

The plan's principal appeal is the insulation it would provide from improper political and commercial pressures. In place of CPB, whose governing board is appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, the new structure calls for a group with only the loosest of ties to the government. Hence, broadcasters would be largely freed from worry over whether their political stance was antagonizing anyone in Washington.

An equally important goal - freedom from corporate interests - would also be achieved by the factory tax. Before starting new projects, producers today often have to solicit corporations, hat in hand, to see what kind of programs the companies are willing to underwrite.

The plan's main drawback is lack of political and managerial realism. The factory tax plan has little chance of overcoming the resistance of industry and its congressional allies. And the management structure called for is too monolithic and unaccountable to be responsive to the varied needs of a fast-changing public medium.

The plan's real value lies in its role as a catalyst for public awareness that changes, big changes, are necessary. Even CPB admits a restructuring of its own management is in order. But an even more fundamental step may be required, one that incorporates some of the new proposal's ideas, including the creation of a national TV news service - a kind of NPR for television. At the very least, a more independent yet publicly accountable system is needed in place of the inadequate present arrangement.

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