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Politics At Public-tv Convention

May 20, 1985|MORGAN GENDEL | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Political fireworks burned right through the close of public television's annual meeting that ended here Saturday, outshining perennial concerns about funding and programming.

The controversy centered on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the nonprofit agency that distributes federal funds to the nation's public radio and TV stations, whose chairman and president aired their ideological and personal differences in an unusually public display.

On Wednesday, the CPB board voted against a planned meeting with Soviet broadcasters, seen as prospective buyers of American public TV programming.

On Thursday, Edward J. Pfister resigned his $81,000-a-year position as CPB president, citing the Soviet trip decision.

On Friday, CPB chairman Sonia Landau publicly shouted at Pfister, accusing him of "grandstanding" before the PBS membership.

And on Saturday, the board of the Public Broadcasting Service entered the fray by unanimously agreeing to attempt its own trade mission to the Soviet Union.

The CPB actions dominated corridor talk at the convention's St. Francis Hotel headquarters and frequently distracted from such basic issues as enhanced underwriting and station-swapping.

It also raised fears that public television funding may now be in the hands of a politically motivated agency instead of one intended to serve as a buffer between it and the government. "It's essential that the CPB conducts itself as a private, nonpartisan agency" and that its disbursement of funds is not "by federal mandate or need," PBS president Bruce Christensen said, echoing a concern voiced by many of the 309 noncommercial stations that own the network.

That could be happening, some fear, under the administration of chairman Landau, who leads a board dominated by herself and four other Reagan appointees. Landau said she opposes the Soviet trip in part because the United States is negotiating an arms treaty with that country, a reflection, some insiders said, of deference to the White House's Soviet policy.

"For CPB to foreclose the possibility of increased communications where they realistically exist is just not acceptable to me," Pfister said in his scheduled speech before the gathering. Pfister later told the press that his resignation was based solely on the 6-4 vote against the Soviet meeting and not on any ongoing conflict with the board.

Landau told the press that even before receiving Pfister's letter of recommendation she had spoken to other board members about firing him because of his vigorous opposition to the anti-Soviet vote. Earlier, Landau, oblivious to reporters following Pfister to a prearranged press conference, shouted, "You don't know a damn thing about honesty, Ed Pfister!"

Even without the highly charged political background, however, this year's gathering represented a concerted effort away from the "red fez and noisemaker" kind of convention PBS has hosted in the past, as one spokesman said. Although public television, to paraphrase a real estate maxim, has three major concerns--money, money and money--they took various forms on the convention agenda. Among them:

--Program development: With the effect of federal cutbacks "now evident," Christensen said, "the upcoming fall season on public television will be the first in recent memory without a major new domestically produced public television series." Specials, however, will include "Live From Lincoln Center," "Statue of Liberty," "Comet Halley" and the Oscar-winning film "Times of Harvey Milk." New non-domestic series include "Treasure Homes of England" and "River Journeys of the World.'

Series with new episodes will include "Masterpiece Theatre," "Great Performances," "Nova," "Wonderworks," "Newton's Apple" and "Adam Smith's Money World." "Brain" and "A Walk Through the 20th Century With Bill Moyers" will be repeated.

For 1986, Sue Weil, PBS senior vice president for programming, revealed, Larry Hagman will be on tap as host of "Texas."

How can PBS ensure future series? Suggestions from member stations, Christensen reported, range from having a $1 checkoff on federal income tax returns to lobbying to make a donation to PBS a tax credit instead of a tax deduction.

--Swapping: The term doesn't elicit grins among public broadcasters as it might at other conventions. The FCC currently is considering a proposal that would allow VHF public television stations to swap channels with UHF commercial stations in the same market in exchange for cash and other considerations. Although some see swapping as a means of raising revenue that could be pooled nationally for program development, most PBS station managers seem to believe it would be detrimental. Even though cable has expanded viewership in some areas, UHF stations remain handicapped by relatively poor home reception.

The same mentality that favors swapping, former CBS News chief Fred Friendly told the gathering in a keynote address, "says the Metropolitan Museum should switch locations with the Crazy Eddie store on 86th Street" because the former occupies valuable property.

--"Enhanced underwriting" and commercials: Underwriting by major corporations is projected at close to $80 million for this fiscal year, according to PBS vice president Lance Ozier, up by 50% from last year. Part of the reason for that increase, Ozier said, is that the FCC now allows public broadcasters to show sponsor's products and make greater mention of the underwriter. But, newly elected PBS chairman Alfred R. Stern told broadcasters, "the biggest complaint I know of from companies concerning local or national underwriting is lack of consistency."

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