PBS scales down to adjust to the economy


August 05, 1991|By Michael Hill

LOS ANGELES -- After more than two weeks of smoke and mirror shows from the four broadcast networks and a host of cable channels, the critics gathered here for the semi-annual press tour couldn't complain when the PBS presentation was cut from three days to two and filled with a more than usual amount of empty time.

There was probably method behind this kindness.

All across the board, public stations are feeling the brunt of a declining economy. Though they are not dependent on the advertising market that has grown so soft for the commercial networks, they are dependent on the largess of corporations for underwriting funds.

"It is getting harder and harder for some companies to justify underwriting public television on the one hand when they are being forced lay off employees on the other," was the succinct explanation of PBS president Bruce Christensen.

So not only does PBS have fewer big-ticket shows to sell to the critics, it also faces cuts in the promotion funds used to pay for the press conferences. Most notable in its absence was "Masterpiece Theatre," which, along with the also Mobil-funded "Mystery" is usually the subject of an elaborate press event complete with a dozen or so stars brought in from England. One problem that "Masterpiece Theatre" faces is the virtual depression that has gripped the British television industry, forcing the PBS series executives to search far and wide for the kind of quality programming that is the series' trademark.

Christensen's comments came in the press conference of PBS executives, which began with the announcement that NBC and PBS would team up for coverage of next summer's political conventions, an arrange ment that will put Tom Brokaw and other NBC personnel on PBS' "MacNeil/Lehrer Report" early in the evening, before they do their hour or so for NBC later in prime time.

Thus the press conference was devoted almost exclusively to a discussion of the convention coverage, the whys and wherefores, details and logistics. The overall state of PBS went virtually unmentioned.

Nevertheless, Christensen did find it necessary to begin his remarks by assuring the assembled journalists that PBS was not on the verge of going out of business.

Most of the financial problems, he said, are found at the local level where stations face the double whammy of declining underwriting and, in many cases, cuts in government subsidies by deficit-fighting state legislatures.

Also given a fairly short shrift in the convention discussion was PBS' recent loss of $5 million for political coverage during next year's presidential campaign offered by the Markle Foundation.

As PBS' top programmer Jennifer Lawson explained it, that money was going to be added to $3 million from PBS to underwrite coverage of the race. But the Markle plan called for spending $13 million and Lawson did not feel that PBS could be ensured of raising another $5 million in the current economy. With the Markle people refusing to scale down their plans, and with PBS facing deadlines on giving productions the go-ahead, Lawson said she passed on the $5 million.

It was a logical and concise explanation, but the whole affair might be emblematic of another battle going on in public broadcasting. Before Lawson's appointment as a national programmer, PBS was sort of a collection of city states, a participatory democracy that gave equal weight to all its local stations.

In practice, a few stations that were big program suppliers, and their well-heeled underwriters, dominated the system. They are now said to be chafing under the bit of being brought under national control.

Christensen discounted the possibility of a palace revolt. "I think they realize that we are in the same ship and that if our end sinks they'll go down with us," he said.

Lawson admitted that a certain anxiety does grip the system, but said, "We like to work with these stations. Not only do they provide excellent programs, but their development offices have relationships with underwriters that the entire system needs."

And she defended the efficacy of the new national programming alignment, noting that it allowed a quick turnaround for funding programs, such as "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?" a geography game show that joins the afternoon schedule this fall, as well as more effective scheduling, such as the six hours over three nights of "Columbus and the Age of Discovery," an October event commemorating the 200th anniversary of his landfall in the New World.

Still, Lawson faces the same sort of task as Victor Emmanuel did when he united various factions into what is now modern Italy. Though she has logic and reason on her side, old rivalries die hard. PBS still has the potential to go the way, not of Italy, but of Yugoslavia.

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