Public Television's Balancing Act PBS Stations Walk a Fine Line between Corporate Sponsorship and Noncommerical Programming

Article excerpt

WITH government budgets tightening, the future of public television hinges on the success of producers and fund-raisers drawing viewer support, and yes, corporate sponsors.

"Congress, the Federal Communications Commission, and other policymakers have given public television the latitude to go to the marketplace for funding but {in doing so} it runs the risk of making us more commercial," says Bruce Christensen, president of the Public Broadcasting Service.

"We've been very careful to isolate and insulate the production process from our underwriters," Mr. Christensen says, adding "there's a lot of pressure on public television financially...."

Public television is funded by what industry officials call "a unique blend" of sponsors: foundations, government, individual viewers, corporations, and educational institutions, from school boards to universities. In the future, public television will draw more on corporate support than it has in the past and increase cost-sharing measures such as co-productions with European and Japanese public television.

Public television's struggle to offer a distinct service may jeopardize viewer support. Offering selections from outside the mainstream of commercial television, it is vulnerable to charges from across the political spectrum that it is too liberal or selling out to the business establishment.

THE president of WETA (the public television station serving Washington, Maryland, and Virginia) Sharon Percy Rockefeller, counters charges that advertisers threaten editorial control, saying "that's absolutely not true."

"Our mission is expanding, we're increasing the number of services we offer," says Ms. Rockefeller, whose station, in keeping with the mandate of public stations in communities across the country, covers local issues. Along with Boston's WGBH and New York's WNET, WETA is distinguished as one of the top suppliers of nationally viewed public television programs.

Without corporate support, "we'd take a cut in the quality and the quantity of programs," she says. …