Public TV confronts two 'D' words

Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, Oscar the Grouch, and the "Sesame Street" gang celebrate 30 years of making learning fun for kids Nov. 10. The groundbreaking and award-winning show - just as important to PBS as "ER" is to NBC - will get a round of well-deserved huzzahs.

At the moment, the sun is shining on "Sesame Street" and its PBS pals. The effort in Congress to "zero out" funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which underwrites PBS and its local affliliates, appears to be over, and budgets for the next two years are in place.

On the horizon, though, clouds are thickening. Public broadcasting, which has found strength and weaknesses in its decentralized system of stations and program producers, is facing two "D" words: digital TV and diversity.

Some $1.7 billion is needed to convert hundreds of PBS affliliates to digital technology. That means new equipment to shoot, edit, and transmit programming digitally. Stations are expected to raise half that amount. It's CPB's job to persuade Congress, which has mandated that all broadcasters switch to digital transmission by 2006, to come up with the rest.

The switch will be "a monumental transition" for public TV, says Frank Cruz, who took over as chairman of the CPB in September. But the potential benefits provide "a great opportunity," he told me in a chat by phone from Laguna Niguel, Calif., this week. Most people know of the improved picture and sound of digital broadcasts, but fewer are aware of the four to six additional channels that each station will be able to transmit. Mr. Cruz envisions using these for specialized local programming aimed at niche audiences. Several stations could band together to create shows of special interest to Native Americans, for example, that could be distributed on one of these extra channels.

More outlets for minorities leads to the other "D" word: diversity. The NAACP and other groups still threaten to boycott commercial networks for their lack of diversity. Cruz, a Latino and the first member of an ethnic minority to head the CPB, can look with pride at public TV's track record. But hopes the future will see even more progress.

He cites two outstanding recent series, "An American Love Story," which dealt with an interracial marriage, and "Wonders of the African World with Henry Louis Gates Jr.," in which the Harvard professor unveiled the sophisticated cultural history of Africa. Cruz was pleased that the series didn't run during February's Black History Month but rather showed public TV's year-round commitment to telling the stories of all Americans.

Cruz spent 15 years as a reporter for ABC and NBC affiliates and helped found Telemundo, one of two commercial Spanish-language networks in the US. He says network executives are convinced diverse programs won't sell. "It's a sad day," he says. "They are very focused and very honest" about their goal: delivering audiences to advertisers.

That's a mission much different from the one "Sesame Street" has pursued since it debuted three decades ago.

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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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