Originally published in Current, Oct. 9, 1995
The John and Mary R. Markle Foundation has commissioned Lawrence Grossman, former PBS president, to study the feasibility of his proposal for an advertising-supported sister network for PBS.
Grossman proposed a "new self-supporting quality network" in testimony before Sen. Larry Pressler's communications subcommittee on Sept. 12, the day after the Markle Foundation's board of directors backed the study.
Rather than having some stations begin carrying real commercials on a haphazard, market-by-market basis, Grossman suggests a national network, PBS-2, that would offer free, high-quality programs to public TV stations for perhaps six hours a week. In exchange, the network could sell the commercials.
For the rest of the week, stations would use PBS and other noncommercial programs, with subsidy from revenues they receive as limited partners in PBS-2. Though PBS-2 would carry only programs that fit public TV's mission, Grossman expects that civic and children's programs should continue to be supported only through noncommercial means.
Edith Bjornson, program officer with the Markle Foundation, said this is an "elegant" aspect of the proposal: that the network would not only support its own fare but also give stations income for local public affairs programming and children's programming that wouldn't attract commercial support.
Like the Fox network, PBS-2 would start with two or three nights of programs a week, but unlike Fox, it would aim for top quality. If the new network dropped its standards and started carrying Lawrence Welk reruns, Grossman told Current, the FCC would be able to withdraw the waiver that permits commercials on public TV. He compared the idea to Britain's Channel 4, which carries ads but operates under a mandate to serve alternative audiences.
Stations would not be obliged to participate, he said. Instead, the network would ask them to become affiliates and partners.
"There's been a lot of loose talk about commercials and expanded underwriting," said Grossman. "None of it will work effectively in an atmosphere of every man for himself. ... The key for the system is to have a businesslike attitude toward it."
Grossman said the feasibility study for Markle, to be completed by early 1996, will look at potential revenues and costs of the network, the issues within public TV and the legal and political questions involved. "The job is to see if any of this makes sense." He will take no fee for the work, Grossman said.
In his Senate testimony, Grossman, a former president of NBC News, also endorsed Pressler's proposal for spectrum fees to support a public broadcasting trust fund as well as reduce the federal deficit. "I urge you not to give away valuable additional frequencies to wealthy telecommunications companies that have already profited spectacularly from the government's spectrum largesse," he told the senators.
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