Sound, fury rise over PBS funding

January 06, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Los Angeles -- Public television executives traveled 3,000 miles to come here and tout their new shows for this spring, but the only question on anyone's mind is whether they will get any money from the new Congress that just convened back home.

Ever since House Speaker Newt Gingrich threatened last month to stop having taxpayers foot the bill for public television, the rhetoric on both sides of the debate has been rising in volume.

And, as so often happens in such cases, the din is drowning out the voices of more reasonable people who believe public television might have a lot to learn from a healthy debate on how it does business.

Among the partisans making the most noise is Sen. Larry Pressler, the South Dakota Republican who chairs the Commerce Committee that oversees financing for public television, set at $285.6 million this year.

He plans to hold hearings exposing the "waste and bloat" of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and adds derisively that if public TV got half the profit made off its popular character Barney "it'd be floating in money and wouldn't cost the taxpayers a cent."

Conservative media critic L. Brent Bozell has been an even louder voice in the debate, saying public television should be privatized and shows that can't make it in a commercial environment should be "flushed down the toilet."

Ervin S. Duggan, the president of the Public Broadcasting System, is fighting back with heated words of his own.

He replied here yesterday to Pressler's charges by saying, "We are extremely frugal stewards," and charging that such critics are "enemies of public television" who only want "to annihilate it."

Bill Moyers, a producer and commentator for PBS, also joined the fray, telling television critics gathered here that he believes Gingrich wants to kill public TV to help the cable industry, which carries the congressman's show.

"I find it intriguing that his [Gingrich's] second big attack on public broadcasting came in an interview with C-Span . . . which is a creature of the cable industry and is run by friends of the new speaker of the House," Mr. Moyers said.

All this name-calling is obscuring one truth voiced by people such as Maryland Public Television President Raymond Ho -- that public TV should be listening to its critics because there is room for improvement.

"If improvement of public television can come from this debate, then I welcome it," Ho said yesterday. "But, so far, we haven't even had any useful debate. Most of the people in the debate don't even understand how public television works."

One thing that must be understood is this: Federal money may pay only 14 percent of the bill for putting a program on public TV, but it is the seed from which all shows grow.

Consider a new children's show called "Kratt's Creatures" that is now being developed by MPT, the fourth-largest producer of programming for PBS.

MPT received only $1.5 million in federal money for the initial episodes of the show, which will cost $6.5 million to make. But it was able to use that money as leverage to raise the other $5 million from other partners, Ho said.

If Congress cuts off all money for public television, MPT and the other stations producing programs for public television won't go out of business. They will still have money from their viewers, the state, and local and national corporations.

But the nature of the shows will change. If public television becomes more dependent on corporate financing, it will simply become more and more like its commercial cousins.

Ho believes it would be a mistake to cut off all federal money, but he believes the debate can lead to public television spending what it does get more wisely. "There are ways we can improve the system, and that's what should come out of this -- not the attacks," he says.

And that's where PBS and its knee-jerk supporters are missing the point in trying to demonize Gingrich to cut off debate. PBS has a lot of room to improve.

Two years ago, for instance, PBS gave $300,000 to former NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff to deliver a sitcom -- yes, a sitcom -- for a system that says its reason for being is to make room for shows that could never survive on commercial TV.

PBS got nothing but a couple of bad scripts for its money in a deal that would have resulted in heads rolling at a commercial network.

PBS also has two other serious flaws -- at least one of which may explain why conservative Republicans are taking on the system.

It has never had enough conservative voices on the air, and it allows those who produce shows like "Barney" to make way too much profit off something that was initially financed with taxpayers' money.

The deals PBS has struck with the producers of its shows allow them to keep all the profits off merchandising -- such as the sales of purple Barney dinosaur dolls or books of Bill Moyers scripts.

PBS has, at least, taken some steps to address those issues. Duggan says PBS has negotiated new deals with the producers that will mean far more revenue for public TV and less for them, although he refuses to disclose details.

And, next month, President Ronald Reagan's former speech writer, Peggy Noonan, will become a PBS regular, launching a series on values. Conservative columnist Fred Barnes also has a PBS series in the works.

But, even in announcing those changes, Duggan succumbed to the partisan public relations battle he's waging with Congress. He refused to acknowledge that the improvements are -- at least in part -- the result of criticism from conservatives.

Public television is not a fatted calf that should be led off and slaughtered. But it's not a sacred cow either, which is above criticism. Voices on both sides need to be lowered.

As Ho says, "Let's have an informed debate, learn from it to improve public television and move forward."

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