Problems facing public TV, radio go beyond Congress

March 13, 1995|By Marc Gunther | Marc Gunther,Knight-Ridder News Service

Washington -- Newt Gingrich's opposition may be the most visible threat to PBS, but it's far from the only one.

With Congress on the verge of cutting its subsidy, public television is struggling to raise more money from corporations and viewers.

But it faces many obstacles: it is bureaucratic and inefficient, requiring the upkeep of 350 stations, compared with 200 for the commercial networks, and its leadership is splintered and politicized.

One sign of the troubled times: Ervin Duggan, the president of the Public Broadcasting Service, was so fearful of conservative critics that he wanted to take a four-hour series about the FBI off the air last month until he was talked out of it by his staff, PBS sources say. They fear that such a willingness to bend with the political winds potentially compromises the independence of PBS.

Mr. Duggan is far from the only person in public television who's skittish these days. Producers and executives throughout the system worry about the impact of federal cutbacks on a service that has never been flush with money and lacks the strong central voice needed in a crisis.

David Fanning, executive producer of the "Frontline" documentary series, says: "I'm not a politician, but I can't help but be concerned."

Congress poses the most immediate threat. Republicans, led by Mr. Gingrich, the speaker of the House, want to eliminate the federal subsidy for public broadcasting, which amounts to about $285 million this year. Critics say public TV and radio are elitist, too liberal, superfluous because of cable TV, and a drain of scarce federal resources.

Already, a House committee has voted to cut 15 percent in 1996 and 30 percent in 1997 from money allocated to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which distributes grants to PBS, National Public Radio, 351 public TV stations and 629 public radio stations. The recommended budget reductions amount to about $47 million in 1996 and $95 million in 1997.

PBS and its allies hope to roll back the cuts in the Senate, which is more moderate. Supporters of PBS and NPR, most of them Democrats, say they provide valuable cultural and educational programs, at minimal taxpayer expense -- about $1.09 per person per year.

But the congressional debate is not the only problem.

Government money for public television flows not only directly through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting but also indirectly from other federal agencies -- all facing severe budget constraints. The Department of Education pays for course offerings via television. The National Science Foundation funds science programs. The National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities support cultural and historical shows.

While the CPB's direct grants account for about 15 percent of funds spent on public television, those other federal grants make up another 5 percent. They are all endangered.

If federal money is lost, public stations could turn to corporations or viewers. But it's unlikely to generate much more money from either.

John Abbott, a PBS vice president for development, says: "It's not like, over the past few years, we haven't been doing all we can to drive up private giving. There has been no lack of motivation."

On the corporate side, the system took a major step in the early 1980s when its rules governing commercials were substantially loosened. Until then, PBS allowed little more than corporate logos against a blue screen. After so-called "enhanced underwriting" guidelines opened the door to corporate image commercials before and after programs, using animation and video, business funding took off, growing from $78 million to $210 million in the 1980s.

Since then, though, corporate funding has stabilized. The only way to attract more corporate money, insiders say, would be to allow commercials to interrupt programs -- a mistake, most think.

"We can't compromise the character of public television," says Mr. Abbott. "The public has told us that they welcome business support, but don't interrupt my program." Besides, public television executives say, permitting more ads would lead PBS into a world where ratings determine what shows would air and diminish its role as an alternative.

Viewer support, too, grew during the 1980s, going from $78 million to $270 million. The reason? Direct-mail fund-raising, which proved more effective and efficient than pledge drives. Membership grew from 2.6 million to 5.2 million.

But that number has remained static for five years. Many stations already run 10- to 20-day pledge periods in March, August and December, supplemented with "emergency" beg-a-thons. They raise money by mail, by phone, by auctions and sweepstakes.

Some stations are encouraged by increases in fund-raising this month, as viewers give more than usual. It's the same phenomenon that drives up donations to the Red Cross after natural disasters.

Congressional critics say public television should do more to capture revenue from such hit shows as "Barney and Friends" and "The Civil War" and their spin-off products. Public broadcasting officials agree, but, they say, the amount of money available from licensing is limited and they don't own, or even fully finance, most programs they air.

A deeper problem is that the public TV establishment is ill-equipped to adapt nimbly to changing times.

One Washington executive says: "One of the great strengths of public broadcasting -- its decentralized nature -- turns out in a crisis like this to be a great weakness. . . . There is nobody who can declare martial law."

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