PBS earmarks $6 million to develop 'younger' programs

July 23, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Los Angeles -- Viewership is down. Corporate underwriting is harder to come by. Membership is flat at best. The politics of government funding are fierce. And there is no high-impact new series, like "Civil War," in sight.

Public television does not have much to celebrate these days.

Bruce Christensen, president of PBS, and Jennifer Lawson, head of programming, tried to put the best face on the upcoming fall season at a press conference here yesterday.

Christensen played down the attack on PBS from conservatives earlier this year, which stalled federal funding.

"It's a more difficult climate in Washington for everybody," Christensen said. ". . . It is as rancorous and politicized as most observers have ever seen. In the end, though, public television won its vote in Senate 84-11. . . . And there are not many institutions that get that kind of support."

But what emerged after two days of presentations before television critics is a broadcaster with problems that go well beyond criticism from the right. PBS knows it has to start reaching a younger audience, but is unwilling to admit how badly it needs to do that.

PBS lost about 10 percent of its prime-time audience last year, while the commercial broadcasters finally held their own after years of steady erosion.

"We have indeed experienced a drop off in our prime-time audience," Lawson said, noting the largest group of viewers is in the 50-plus age range.

"Part of our programming strategy has been to reach out to a slightly younger demographic, while at the same time retaining our older audience."

That translates to a broadcaster quietly trying to win new viewers, but afraid of losing old ones in the process. And that makes a broadcaster that is neither fish nor fowl. The presentations here mirrored that confusion.

Major presentations were held for "Great Performances" and "Masterpiece Theatre"; Lawson also emphasized "MacNeil/Lehrer" and its marriage to NBC News in convention coverage. All are old-line PBS signature series with older audiences.

But among the most promising development was an announcement that $6 million had been earmarked for development of new programs for the first hour of prime-time (8 p.m. to 9 p.m.). What wasn't said is that this money is going to be spent to try to create series that appeal to younger viewers. This $6 million commitment is significant in this economic climate and suggests how badly PBS needs to come up with something that will draw younger viewers and stop its prime-time audience erosion.

But that's long-term. Short-term, the fall lineup is weak. PBS will not even have a fall premiere showcase week this year, although executives insist that should not be read as a lack of enthusiasm for their shows.

"Frontline" has a promising special on the Clarence Thomas hearings, "Public Hearing, Private Pain." A long overdue report, "Power, Politics and Latinos," is also scheduled for the fall. But, overall, the soup seems watery.

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