Critics arise as PTV Weekend plan gets some ink

By Steve Behrens and Karen Everhart Bedford

Lawrence Grossman’s PTV Weekend proposal for experimentation with a two-night commercial network for public TV stations — described for the first time in major newspapers this month — drew opposition and questions from several well-placed individuals.

  • FCC Chairman Reed Hundt criticized the plan June 9 at the National Press Club. The proposed experiment with advertising on public TV is “an idea we ought to just reject out of hand,” he said. “Once you make public broadcasting commercial, you’ve lost it.”
  • Bill Baker, president of New York’s WNET, a station whose market would be important to the proposed advertiser-supported programming, said PTV Weekend is “a wrong-headed concept at the wrong time,” which “could be very deleterious to the whole concept of public television.”
  • Ervin Duggan, PBS president, said he wants to maintain an open mind on the proposal until public TV explores and rigorously answers some “serious questions” about its consequences. But he added, “It seems to me we need to test thoroughly the existing mechanisms for generating funds for national programming before we resort to — what word would I use? — radical proposals.”

Prospects look worse to some major-station execs who back the proposed five- to seven-year experiment with PTV Weekend. Key managers in Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia are interested in a PTV Weekend experiment; those in Boston and Washington are opposed.

Two prominent station chiefs debate the experiment in this issue of Current: Mike Hardgrove of St. Louis favors the experiment and Fred Esplin of Salt Lake City opposes it.

The proposal, developed since 1995 by Grossman, a former PBS president, had not gained much public notice until the New York Times carried a news article June 5 (“Commercials on public TV? Some Stations Are Tempted”) and a negative commentary by TV critic Walter Goodman several days later. The subject is expected to be featured in a Boston Globe series this week.

Grossman proposes to bring in new funds for new high-quality programming on participating public TV stations by creating a privately financed network that would sell commercial time. Commercials would not interrupt shows or be attached to children’s programs. A text of Grossman’s latest report on the project is posted on Current Online.

Talk of the town

The PTV Weekend proposal has been a much-discussed topic around WNET since the Times article came out, Baker said.

Viewers would be “angry and antagonistic and feel we have done something that is morally wrong” if WNET participated in the experiment, he predicted. “That pretty well is the view of the [WNET] board as well.”

Baker also has been stopped on a Manhattan street by a Time-Warner executive, who offered to help public TV sell air time.

“I have great respect and love for Larry [Grossman], but we have strong disagreements on this project,” said Baker. He said a new experiment with on-air advertising would be irreversible. “Once you’ve taken it, you’re down another path.”

“The thing this country doesn’t need is another 350 commercial television stations,” he said. “What will happen is that we will do nice programs, but they will not be uniquely public-service programs.”

Public TV has been doing “quite well” lately, from his vantage point, with major WNET underwriting deals for Nature and Great Performances, a successful $70 million capital campaign by the station, and a new national underwriting sales collaboration between PBS and major producing stations.

“We’re just starting to learn how to do what we should have been doing.”

Questions from PBS headquarters

Duggan said Grossman had given PBS two briefings on the proposal and that PBS had offered to help pay to study it, an offer Grossman has not accepted.

“I think this proposal faces a whole array of questions that need to be seriously asked and explored,” Duggan told Current.

For instance, “Would this cause a sort of magnetic pull of underwriters to the commercial part of the schedule?” How would Congress, the FCC and public-interest groups take the proposal? “What would be the reaction of commercial broadcasters to the notion that people who pay no taxes and get money from the federal government will be selling commercials in competition with them?” And: “In a world in which national branding becomes more and more important, does this dilute and blur the brand of PBS and public television?”

Many pubcasters “had their faith shaken” by the federal funding crisis of 1995-96, Duggan said. “My own feelings are that the results of that debate should energize and should rekindle our faith about the future of noncommercial public television, because the American people again and again expressed their high esteem for the noncommercial alternative.”

Bad ideas better than none

Hundt, who is awaiting White House appointment of a successor before he leaves the FCC chairmanship, criticized not only the PTV Weekend plan but also the historic trade-off proposed by Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), chairman of the House telecom subcommittee. Without citing Tauzin as backer of the plan for commercial broadcasters to “buy their way out” of their public-service obligations, he commented: “A bad idea is born every day in this country.”

The public has never made an adequate commitment to fund public broadcasting in this country, Hundt said during a children’s TV session sponsored by the Annenberg Public Policy Center. Now, as funding for the field tightens, “reasonable people are coming up with bad ideas because they’re better than no ideas at all.”

Commercial TV should accept its “necessary and obligatory” role of providing public-interest programming, and policymakers should work on making a “long-term, enforceable and concrete commitment to public broadcasting,” Hundt said.

Noncommercial television is “a glory of our country,” Hundt said. “We ought not to let this slip through our fingers.” He suggested that Vice President Gore’s digital TV commission would consider public broadcasting’s long-term financing dilemma.

David Donovan, v.p. of the Association of Local Television Stations, expressed his own misgivings about Tauzin’s proposal during the Annenberg conference. He wants assurances that public TV will end its hot pursuit of commercial revenues before his member stations agree to any subsidy.

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