On Eve of US House Vote, Public Broadcasters Mull Options

Many have tried alternatives congressional cost-cutters propose

MOTORCYCLE jacket, black turtleneck, jeans -- the only familiar part of Lyle Lovett's appearance is the Texas musician's 10-gallon hairdo, as he takes the stage at KLRU, Austin's public-TV station.

It's an afternoon rehearsal for ``Austin City Limits'' the acclaimed music program broadcast by 266 public television stations in 300 markets in the United States. Mr. Lovett will wear his customary suit and tie later in the evening, when he tapes the last show of ACL's 20th season - and possibly one of its last ever.

What becomes of ``Austin City Limits,'' and, indeed, of public radio and television, depends on whether Republicans in the House of Representatives prevail in their determination to cut federal funding. A subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee has approved a bill to trim funding by 15 percent next year and 30 percent the following year.

As the issue nears a vote in the full House, possibly tomorrow, politicians and broadcast executives ponder whether public broadcasting could survive through some combination of internal restructuring, relaxed advertising rules, privatization, and stepped-up private contributions. Some executives say they have already explored many of these alternatives, with mixed results.

Rep. John Porter (R) of Illinois, chairman of the House subcommittee that proposed the cuts, calls them ``relatively modest cuts that could be absorbed by CPB.'' He calls himself ``a reliable friend of public broadcasting,'' a characterization shared by public station WTTW in Chicago.

Some budget-cutters suggest that the private sector take over public-TV's functions. Peter Sepp, spokesman for the 300,000-member National Taxpayers Union, says, for example, that the science channels on cable TV might want ``Nova'' and other PBS science programs.

Bill Arhos, executive producer of ``Austin City Limits'' points out as he watches Lovett rehearse that a for-profit version of the show would need a much larger budget to pay artists. The previous night, Lovett sold out a major concert hall. Today, because this is public TV, he's working for the industry equivalent of minimum wage.

The attraction, Lovett explains later, is the opportunity to come closer to re-creating his live performance than he can on other broadcasts. ``They let the artist do his show,'' he says. That is, without commercial interruptions.

Randy Ramey, a stockbroker and public-television executive in Waco, Texas, is concerned about family fare. He argues that commercial TV is driven to sell sensationalism to win market share, which translates into advertiser dollars. ``This notion of children's TV programs being picked up by private broadcasters is nothing but Russian roulette,'' he says.

Mr. Ramey, Arhos, and others in public television scratch their heads over the notion that they cater to an elite audience, as some politicians charge. On the contrary, they say, every week PBS stations entertain 101 million viewers whose demographics match the nation's.

And at bargain rates: Tickets for Lovett's concert cost $18 to $50, for example. Public TV audiences will get to see his performance, plus a year's worth of other programming - from ``Sesame Street'' to ``Wall Street Week`` - for a federal-tax cost of 80 cents per US resident.

Mr. Arhos, who recalls the early days of televising ``hand puppets and origami classes,'' says now KLRU's mix of local and Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) programming occasionally pulls in more viewers than the networks for a given time slot.

Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, a Republican candidate for president, has said that every federal program should be judged by whether it is worth taking money from the ink-stained hands of Dicky Flatt, a printer in tiny rural Mexia, Texas. Mr. Flatt, contacted by phone, says he doesn't watch much TV but did tune in to ``The Three Tenors`` special on KCTF. ``I like their music,'' he said.

Some politicians favor restructuring the public broadcasting system to eliminate ``oversaturation,'' when more than one PBS station serves a market - Washington has four PBS stations, for example. David Brugger, president of the Association of America's Public TV Stations, calls that allegation ``overblown.'' While 19 metropolitan areas have some overlap, the stations target different audiences, he says.

There is also interest in Congress in taking money from well-off, big-city stations while maintaining support for rural ones. That's agreeable to Virgil Smith, station manager of KRSC at Rogers State College in rural Claremore, Okla.

``We're walking on eggshells'' over possible cuts in federal funds, which contribute up to 45 percent of his $1 million budget, he says. KRSC, whose full-time staff of 12 has made it the world leader in producing college telecourses, already foresees losing some state and college funding.

At Chicago's WTTW, the nation's most-watched public station per capita, federal money is only 5 percent of its $40 million budget. ``Nobody wants to lose money,'' spokesman Marty McLaughlin says. But it might make sense to ensure support for rural stations at the expense of stations like his, he says.

For a year, WTTW was allowed to air commercials for underwriters between broadcasts as an experiment in alternative revenue. The ``modest results'' justify further trials, Mr. McLaughlin says.Perhaps the biggest question is to what extent private contributions will offset proposed cuts in the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the entity through which most federal dollars for public radio and television flow.

Proponents of the cuts argue that the non-federal base of support is large (see chart). Washington provided just $1 in $3 spent to produce public television's national programming lineup. Less than $1 in $7 of public TV's total revenue comes from the CPB.

``Austin City Limits'' used to get $700,000 from PBS. When that was cut last year to $496,000, Arhos hired a fund-raiser who found Frito-Lay Inc. responsive. It provided $100,000 last year and $125,000 this year - plus bags of chips for studio audiences. This year the show also got a one-time, $50,000 gift from the city of Austin, leaving the production just $25,000 short.

But it's not an easy gap to close. He and others at the station have worked assiduously to raise funds.

On the other hand, several public-radio stations reported very successful fund drives recently, possibly because of publicity about threatened federal cuts. Listeners ``were casting their own budget vote,'' says Allen Knight of WSKG in Binghamton, N.Y. Member support for WSKG's TV side rose almost enough over a five-year period to offset losses of state funding, he adds.

Mr. Brugger, though, says that when the publicity of funding cuts fades, interest will decline. Lower income for stations means less money to buy programming, and good programming is what attracts member support.

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