Public Broadcasters See Federal-Free Future

PUSHED by budget-conscious members of Congress to get off the dole, the public broadcast industry is pursuing two competing plans that would trim its dependence on congressional coffers.

A tax-exempt trust fund is the centerpiece of the plan generated by a coalition of public broadcast groups. Help us raise $3 billion to $5 billion by 2002, the group told lawmakers Tuesday, and we will cut costs, raise revenue, and be self-sufficient forever. The group includes National Public Radio (NPR), the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), Public Radio International (PRI), and the Association of America's Public Television Stations (APTS).

But the competing plan released by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting -- the federal agency that distributes taxpayer money to broadcasters -- argues that self-sufficiency is impossible: ''No combination of cost savings and new sources of revenue ... can fully replace'' Congress's subsidy. It is likely to be an unpopular admission in Congress.

Now that the plans have been revealed, the industry begins an exercise in entrepreneurship, and Congress undergoes a test of its willingness to jeopardize a program with many supporters.

For viewers and listeners, the coalition's plan to eventually drop its $280-million annual dependence on taxpayer dollars will likely bring more advertisements. The line between understated sponsor identifications and full-blown commercials is getting ''vaguer and vaguer,'' says Mary Morgan, an NPR spokeswoman. And the distinction could disintegrate more: ''Faced with ads or dead air, they will find a way to compromise their principles,'' says Bob Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington.

For Congress, the coalition's plan would require large immediate outlays -- a prospect with strong support on Capitol Hill, as long as independence follows. ''It will be good to find near- and medium-term sources to allow us to get to independence,'' says Rep. John Porter of Illinois, one of two influential Republicans key to public broadcasting's future.

To build its trust fund, the coalition has asked for access to proceeds from the government's auction of new TV frequencies and for the government to allow commercial leasing of noncommercial frequencies. Rep. Jack Fields (R) of Texas, chairman of the Telecommunications and Finance Committee, has voiced support for these requests.

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