Commercials on Public TV? Some Stations Show Interest

Commercializing public broadcasting may seem like a contradiction in terms. But not to Lawrence K. Grossman, the former PBS and NBC News president who has come up with a plan for public television stations to air commercials two nights a week.

More than a half-dozen public television stations are interested in the proposal, which would allow local PBS stations to run commercials Friday and Saturday evenings, when stations schedule their own programs.

The plan follows a similar experiment in the early 1980s, when eight stations ran limited advertising over their airwaves for two years.

"There's no question that this is a long shot, but something major has to be done if public television is going to avoid spiraling into irrelevancy," says Mr. Grossman. The revenue generated could be used to produce better programs, he says.

Station executives in Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Miami agree. But the plan is fiercely opposed by top executives at other public television stations around the United States.

Sharon Rockefeller, president of WETA in Washington, calls it a "radical solution" which would confuse both viewers and the marketplace. "You can't be commercial on the weekends and non-commercial during the week.

"You have to be one thing or the other," she says.

The plan would violate the very charter of public television, says Fred Esplin, general manager of KUED in Salt Lake City. "The reason we were founded was to advance culture, education, and citizenship. Not to be part of the marketplace. Our business is public service, not commerce."

Commercials on public television would inevitably coarsen its content, he says. "Before you know it, Fred Rogers is gone and Al Bundy is on."

Yet some public television stations already engage in "expanded underwriting," allowing corporations like General Motors and IBM to run 15- and 30-second advertisements before programs.

And lately, stations have been employing other means of nontraditional fund-raising, producing shows for commercial broad- casters and even selling Internet access to viewers, says Michael Hardgrove, president and general manager of KETC in St. Louis, who supports Grossman's proposal.

The former PBS president envisions a hybrid model of public broadcasting patterned after Britain's Channel 4, which operates by mandate from Parliament but is supported by commercials.

Besides producing high-quality programming like "American Playhouse," Hardgrove says the plan could generate money public broadcasters need to convert to a digital format, a transition the entire American broadcasting industry must make over the next decade. The cost for converting to digital signals could be as much as $3 million per station, says Hardgrove.

For the plan to succeed, Congress would have to authorize the FCC to grant a waiver to stations who want to try it. If enough stations are interested, says Grossman, a request for the legislation could be made as early as this fall.

Although Grossman says he's had informal conversations with Republicans in Congress who are privately "enthusiastic" about the proposal, none have endorsed it publicly.

Ms. Rockefeller says the first question Congress will ask is, " 'If you accept advertising, why do you need government support?' " The answer, she says, will be, " 'You don't.' "

Ken Johnson, spokesman for Rep. Billy Tauzin (R) of Louisiana, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications, says, "Billy doesn't necessarily believe it's the right way to go. If a public broadcaster suddenly has to start considering whether a program sells a product, that jeopardizes the whole concept of PBS."

Reed Hundt, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, weighed-in on the issue this week. At a June 9 conference on children and television in Washington, Mr. Hundt said, "any plans for the airing of commercials on public television are bad plans."

Opposition to Grossman's plan is also likely to come from commercial broadcasters, who may object to the notion of a taxpayer-supported broadcasting system that charges for commercials.

Whether or not Grossman's proposal is embraced by more stations, there's also no shortage of alternative plans for financing public television. The recently created PBS Sponsorship Group, a four-station coalition from some of the nation's leading markets - Boston, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington - is working with PBS to curry corporate contributions for national programming.

And later this month, Rep. Tauzin will introduce legislation aimed at creating a public trust fund for public broadcasting.

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