PASADENA, Calif. -- The Democracy Project, an ambitious mix of news and public affairs programs, will devote more than 100 hours of PBS prime time to examining the 1996 presidential campaign, public television executives and on-air journalists said yesterday.
During sessions of the Television Critics Association press tour, PBS officials also unveiled plans for coverage of a "National Issues Convention," scheduled the weekend of Jan. 20 in Austin, Texas. In this event, to be moderated by Jim Lehrer of "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," 600 Americans from various
economic and ideological backgrounds will discuss the issues of the day with experts in the respective disciplines, as well as presidential candidates.
Mr. Lehrer admitted the convention was having difficulty securing commitments from leading presidential hopefuls such as Kansas Republican Bob Dole, but added, "this is not a candidates' forum. The basic process will go on no matter how many candidates are on hand."
Nonetheless, Mr. Lehrer conceded that it was frustrating to hear candidates grouse that the media wasn't focusing on the issues of the campaign, only to reject an invitation to address those issues on national TV. "I'm dismayed by it. When a candidate is asked to do anything, it's always looked at in terms of, what's in it for me? But I can't imagine being a candidate at this particular time when it's clear by every poll that people are interested in the direction their country is going. The public is ready to move into a kind of more hands-on involvement in their government."
In addition to the National Issues Convention, Mr. Lehrer will be the host of a special, "Character Above All," examining the leadership of past presidents. "Washington Week in Review" host Ken Bode will devote an evening to examining the history and the impact of the Iowa caucuses, the first and highly influential votes cast for presidential aspirants.
"Iowa has the single most informed electorate," Mr. Bode explained. "They're the people who take the time to go to meetings with candidates and citizens. After Iowa, there's not much direct candidate-to-citizen interaction. And Iowa has a tremendous effect. This year, someone [among the Republican candidates] will be sorted out as the [credible] not-Dole candidate and will get a huge boost."
Other special programs are also scheduled. Ervin S. Duggan, president and CEO of PBS, called the Democracy Project the most ambitious public affairs television project ever to be undertaken. "It will make a statement about how serious we are )) about deliberating over the conversations that concern this country, which is our programming mission," he said.
Mr. Duggan also unveiled other special programs to be aired on PBS, including a TV version of the Broadway smash musical "Les Miserables" and an ambitious exploration of the world's religions, "Genesis: A Living Conversation with Bill Moyers." A three-hour documentary biography of Ronald Reagan is also due by the end of the year.
Mr. Duggan added that while the congressional battles over ending government funding of PBS that bedeviled the company this time last year have passed -- "I will certainly state definitively that PBS will survive," he declared -- the debate over the government's role in funding public television has not subsided. "We are not complacent about that debate," he said.
One alternative to annual appropriations that has been proposed is a "trust fund," though details are sketchy as to how that would
be paid for.