The new PBS season comes on the air on little cat's feet

September 17, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

These are not the best of times for PBS.

Viewership is down. Corporate underwriting is harder to come by. Membership is flat at best. The politics of government funding are fierce, with conservative voices rising in their complaints about "bias." And there is no high-impact new fall series, like Ken Burns' "Civil War" in sight.

PBS does not have a "Showcase Week" this fall as it has in recent years. Top PBS executives say it is wrong to conclude they are any less enthusiastic about their new productions -- like "The Kennedys" which airs this Sunday night as part of the "American Experience" series -- because of that.

But, looking over the lineup, there simply is not a lot to get excited about, while there is much that causes concern for some within public television, as well as its critics. The best thing that can be said about public TV this season is it is an institution in the throes of great transition -- a transition that is not going all that well.

Nationally, public television lost about 9 percent of its prime-time audience last season compared with the year before, according to A. C. Nielsen.

Meanwhile, such cable channels as Arts & Entertainment, Bravo and Discovery, which compete with PBS through similar programming, continue to grow.

Furthermore, the audience that remains at PBS is an old one, the bulk of which is 50 years old and up -- not especially attractive to some corporate underwriters or compatible with the notion of a truly public TV network.

The lengths to which local and regional public television stations, like MPT, have been driven by PBS' failure to provide them with programming attractive to viewers in their 20s, 30s and 40s is seen in MPT's decision to purchase and air reruns of a show from commercial network TV, "St. Elsewhere," weeknights at 11:30.

"The show's proven appeal to the 35- to 54-year-olds, which will broaden MPT's base," was the main reason given for the unusual programming move by Michael Styer, MPT's senior vice president of broadcasting.

"The vast majority of our audience is over 50," Styer explained. "Like everybody -- the newspapers and the symphony -- we have to start developing audiences for the future."

Styer is right about lots of institutions needing to develop younger audiences, but a newspaper with an audience as old as that of public TV these days would be out of business, because it could not attract the advertising needed to survive.

But holding an older audience, while attracting a younger one is very tricky business -- especially when you are in the bind PBS finds itself in of not being able to afford to "blow off" any older viewers, because they are the ones who do most of the giving during pledge drives.

Jennifer Lawson, the head of programming at PBS, tried to soft-pedal the situation, saying, "Part of our programming strategy has been to reach out to a slightly younger demographic, while, at the same time, retaining our older audiences."

But Mitch Semel, the former PBS vice president for programming who had been brought in to win younger viewers, was more blunt in saying that it was especially hard to attract young viewers at PBS, while constrained by the fact that older viewers give more money and, so, have to be given great weight in choice of programs.

And the donations of older viewers have become even more crucial in recent years due to cutbacks in other areas, such as government funding and corporate underwriting. MPT, for example, lost about $1 million, roughly 10 percent of its funding from the state last year.

Semel, who had helped create a $6 million development fund for new programming aimed at younger viewers, resigned from PBS last month to become VP for programming at Comedy Central, the red-hot cable channel.

There is yet another major problem with PBS, its older audience and the notion of truly serving the public: PBS, despite its mandate to be a catalyst for culturally diverse programming, continues to be too-much older, white and male in its big-name, prime-time, signature-series, with such stars as Robin MacNeil and Jim Lehrer, Bill Moyers, Louis Rukeyser, David McCullough, of the "American Experience," Paul Duke, of "Washington Week in Review," and Alistair Cooke, of "Masterpiece Theatre," who will retire in November at the age of 83.

Public television is surely getting better in this regard. Productions examining the upcoming election in terms of the specific concerns of women and African-Americans are scheduled this fall, Lawson said. "The Issue Is Race" will air Oct. 2. "Move Over, Women and the '92 Campaign" airs Oct. 16.

But typical of the increased competition PBS now faces in a multichannel TV world, Lifetime has already done a special on women and the '92 election, "Seize The Power," with Lynn Sherr. Furthermore, because of joint ownership, Lifetime had the resources of TV's best news operation, ABC News, behind it.

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