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Christensen's PBS has low $, high co-production potential.

"Common problems have brought common solutions to the international public broadcasting community, pointing the way for America's PBS to engage in ever-expanding co-production activities," said PBS president, Bruce L. Christensen. Like its commercial counterparts, PBS, which provides programming to some 341 non-commercial stations in the U.S. and in Puerto Rico, has been feeling the financial pinch. Its income from the federal government, comes to only 16.5 per cent of its $1.22 billion budget (1989 figures).

The main financial contribution comes from subscribers (21.5 per cent), the state governments (18.9 per cent) and private corporations (16.1 per cent). All of these sources have been severely affected by poor economic conditions.

"The biggest problem we had last year had been the cuts to our support from the state governments across the country," commented Christensen. But, he said, "viewer contributions have been going up during the past year. Some corporate membership is also up, and philanthropic giving has increased a little.

"By and large, the local stations have cut back on personnel, as has PBS," he said. "Ultimately, there are only two alternatives - find efficiencies on the operating level, or reduce the number of quality programs you produce. To date, we have not had to go after the programs per se."

One reason for this is Christensen's determination to emphasize co-production with Europe as a means of sharing the costs on major shows.

How is it that some commercial networks seem to have trouble with international co-productions, while PBS appears to thrive on them?

"I think our producers are used to collaborating and working on production with others," the PBS chief said. "When you produce for American commercial TV, all the revenue comes from one source. They want the final say. They are sure that what they are doing is precisely right for their particular market or clientele." Another challenge for Christensen is coming from the Independent Television Service (ITVS), a "self-described" alternative to PBS.

"We are looking forward to seeing their programs and considering them for PBS distribution." With this statement, Jennifer Lawson, PBS' vp for national programming, "welcomed" the news that ITVS has at long last funded 25 TV programs - to the tune of close to $3 million.

ITVS was established by an act of Congress and funded to the tune of $6 million (from PBS coffers) three years ago. ITVS' avowed purpose is to tap the resources of independent producers and bring a new diversity to PBS programming. According to John Schott, ITVS' executive director, the news shows to be made under ITVS' aegis will be "rich in cultural diversity" and range from children's programs to drama and documentaries. The significant catch in ITVS' relationship with PBS is that, despite the source of financing, public TV stations are not obliged to carry the news programs.

According to Schott, the initial projects are the results of an "open call" to some 24,000 independent producers, back in December 1990. ITVS received more than 2,000 submissions. Selections were based on panelists representing geographic regions.

The long delay in assigning the programs is explained partly by the cumbersome selection procedure, and partly by the way a (reluctant) PBS took its time providing the $6 million at a time when, like almost everyone else, it is strapped for funds. The initial ITVS project will be ready to air by the fall of this year.

Christensen maintained that public television is in the process of broadening the appeal of its shows. "Our approach has been to see that all Americans can see themselves and their interests reflected somewhere in the public television schedule. That has some downsides because we are then serving smaller audiences in some cases than we have in the past. When you are talking about broadening the reach, it doesn't necessarily mean you are looking for higher numbers." Christensen noted that, over the course of a week, some 100 million viewers tune into a public television program.

"In terms of intensity of viewing, or the numbers of hours watched during the week, we are way down the list. But that's okay with us. By its very definition, our audiences are not the same kind the commercial networks want, because they want everybody all the time."

Returning to the important question of revenues, Christensen said that the international sales volume of PBS programs is not crucial.
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Title Annotation:Bruce L. Christensen, president of the Public Broadcasting Service
Publication:Video Age International
Date:Feb 1, 1992
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