PBS Wins the Round, but Its Future Is Hazy

PUBLIC TV can take a breather of sorts. President Bush recently signed a bill authorizing $1.1 billion for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for the period 1994 through 1996 - in time for CPB to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Public Broadcasting Act. The schedule for federal funding now calls for increases from $251 million this year to $253 million in 1993, $310 million in 1994, $375 million in 1995, and $425 million in 1996.

Although most people predicted it would eventually be law, the bill's path was a tortuous one that gave conservative legislators a new chance to throw their darts. The president originally wanted to veto the bill but realized he didn't have the votes to sustain a veto. But opponents did manage to put in a clause restricting "indecent" programs to between midnight and 6 a.m., on the theory that such shows would thus be kept off the air while most kids are watching.

It's a well-motivated concern, if anyone can manage to define "indecent," but it's ironic to witness such solicitude for children on the part of lawmakers who for decades have allowed commercial license-holders to ignore TV's potential for helping young viewers.

Yet this kind of ideological battle is joined nearly every time the CPB refunding bill comes up, and it's probably a good thing, since the arguments against public TV don't die easily. Concerns may be answered by public-TV supporters in one debate and then, a few years later, appear again like polemical creatures from the black lagoon demanding their ritual hearing.

Public TV has a liberal slant, goes the charge. It runs obscene shows like "Tongues Untied" (a program in the "Point of View" series on PBS). It airs too many foreign dramas, especially British ones. Critics go on to say that programming is dictated by production centers under the control of cultural snobs - and that any broadcast operation in the public sector is bound to reflect a centrist bias toward big government and welfarism.

And then there's the most basic charge - that public TV doesn't feed hungry people, as some lawmakers heatedly pointed out during the congressional debate. It doesn't take care of the elderly or perform any other easily defined public service. At a time of budgetary crunch, why spend money on a nonessential service like that?

This line of reasoning is a powerful one with broad-based gut appeal. On a radio talk show I heard the other day, most callers said they didn't want their taxes spent on CPB. The rebuttal, in brief, has to do with the need for a public voice in so influential a medium, if only to show what can be accomplished when something besides profit dictates programming.

The rest of the pro-public-TV rationale cannot be spelled out in this space, but there is time to deal with one particular argument being brandished by opponents these days: that the growth of cable, with its diversity of choices, obviates an alternative like PBS. During the Republican convention last month, for instance, a platform committee passed by voice vote a call for a "sweeping" reform of CPB.

That may not be a bad idea, but the reason they gave referred to the "unprecedented range of access" currently being provided by the private sector. They were talking about all the cable channels now available.

The problem is, around 40 percent of American homes do not have basic cable, often because they can't afford it, whereas some 98 percent can access broadcast TV. And for all the cable channels, viewers still aren't getting the range of alternative shows offered on public TV. Ken Burns couldn't get his series "The Civil War" placed anywhere else.

Although the tax represents only about 14 cents of every dollar spent for public TV, without its symbolic presence, that medium might not exist at all. When "The Civil War" aired, I heard blue-collar people in variety stores chatting with each other about it as if it were yesterday's edition of "Oprah." Hearing the excitement in their voices, I knew that 14 cents was well justified.

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