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PBS money problems stimulate creativity.

Public broadcasting in the U.S. is in deep financial trouble. Some stations, suddenly deprived of state financial support, could end up going dark. Budgets are being trimmed and jobs are being eliminated. Desperate pleas are going out to a recession-squeezed public to increase their financial contributions to the public broadcasters.

Yet, in some strange way, these difficulties appear to be generating some new and innovative thinking in the public TV sector. "Our funding comes from a variety of sources, including 22 per cent from viewer support," said Jennifer Lawson who, as executive vp of the Public Television Service, is responsible for both national programming and promotion.

PBS, which she describes as a membership organization, serves some 300 public TV stations around the country with programming via satellite.

PBS, which has its headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia, and employs over 300 people, is one part of the public broadcasting structure. The other two include the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Association of Public TV Stations.

Lawson clearly was brought in to make both practical and conceptual changes, and she is doing just that - from program content down to the PBS dollars-and-cents way of doing business with member stations.

"We believe that times have changed," she acknowledged, "And we must change with them. But we want this to be a very careful evolution in our programming, because it is so respected. We are known for quality and integrity and that is something we wouldn't want to diminish at all."

Fully conscious of the financial crunch, Lawson said PBS plans to strengthen its connection with the educational community as a way of broadening its funding base and its services.

"There will be new shows, including a geographic game show for kids, and even a sitcom. And for the adults, there will be new series, like Edge, a monthly series of specials examining popular culture.

"We do believe that all forms of television should be open to us," Lawson said. "At the same time, we want to continue to aim for programs we don't get from the commercial networks. We try to fill that hole. We seek to be a distinctive alternative service to what you would find on the other networks and on cable."

Why, in light of falling network audiences, aren't the PBS shows more broadly popular?

"One important reason is that public TV suffers from inadequate promotion," Lawson maintained. "I think we would have a much larger audience if people really understood what we have to offer them. But we have so little money, we always have to put the emphasis on programming rather than on promotion."

Lawson also said that it was important to "break down that artificial barrier between education and entertainment. I do believe there are a number of people who say: |If I wanted to think, I'd go to school. If I wanted to be challenged that way, then let it be on a Sunday. Right now, I just want to go home and relax.' That is where the appeal of the network sitcoms comes in. They provide inter-personal relationships with which the audience can identify."

Lawson reported that, earlier this year, for the first time in 10 years, she arranged for promotional PBS spots on cable and the networks.

As one way to overcome PBS's financial problems, Lawson is intensifying PBS's co-production program. Close contact with Britain is continuing. Additionally, Columbus and the Age of Discovery, a seven-hour series, was shot as a co-production with Spain and other countries.

A new series, Childhood, is the result of a co-production with Japan, the Soviet Union and Guatemala. PBS is also discussing co-ventures with The Discovery Channel.

Lawson discounts reports of threatened closings of public TV stations later in the year. "The stations that are approaching the greatest crisis are generally the ones that rely on State financial support," she said.

"There are others, like the ones in Nebraska, for instance, which are in very good shape. They have dedicated a new service to combat literacy statewide."
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Title Annotation:public broadcasting service
Publication:Video Age International
Date:Oct 1, 1991
Previous Article:Has pay-TV run its American course?
Next Article:HDTV on world stage.

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