NEW YORK — Public television station WNET, one of the country's primary producers of programming for the noncommercial TV system, moved Wednesday to implement a shift in operations that could dramatically affect PBS' prime-time schedule.
The station, which up until now has devoted nearly half of its annual budget to national programming, will focus nearly all of its resources on local programming.
The station plans to continue to produce popular national programs such as "Great Performances" and "Nature." However, these types of programs will be produced only if and when they are fully funded from outside sources, station officials said. In the past, WNET has been willing to fill in funding gaps on its own with money earmarked for national programming.
Other national programs now produced by WNET, under an annual budget that exceeds $80 million, include "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour," "Adam Smith's Money World" and "American Masters," a new arts series scheduled to premiere on PBS June 23.
"More than shifting, we are realigning ourselves for growth," Stella Giammasi, director of public information for WNET, said Wednesday, confirming reports that a five-year plan calling for "radical changes in the way the station does business" would be presented to the WNET board of trustees later in the day. A news release announcing the board's unanimous approval already was being distributed in advance of the meeting.
"We hope that we will have the wherewithal to continue to be a major supplier of programs," she said, "but we will only supply them when they are fully financed, up front."
While WNET's shift in focus could lead to a reduction in the amount of programming it provides to the Public Broadcasting Service, Suzanne Weil, vice president of programming for the noncommercial network, said Wednesday that she saw no reason to expect a dramatic change.
Reached by telephone in Los Angeles, where PBS officials this week are previewing the network's summer and fall programs to the news media, Weil said she had no direct knowledge of WNET's plans. However, she added, "As far as focusing on local programming, I would expect the kind of programs that would be of interest to New Yorkers would also be of interest to others around the country."
WNET's action came in part because of a year-long study it commissioned, which reported that in light of growing competition for viewer attention, WNET would do well to establish itself as a strong local station serving the metropolitan New York area.
Beyond that, however, WNET long has carried the burden, along with WBGH in Boston and KCET Channel 28 in Los Angeles, of raising the money for the production, distribution and publicizing of the programming at the core of PBS' prime-time schedule. But officials at the three stations have been saying for years that they were finding it increasingly difficult to recoup the costs for national programs through subscriber pledges and corporate underwriting.
WNET has been seriously threatened by advancing its own operating funds to start production on such series as "The Brain" and "Civilization and the Jews," before the series were fully funded. KCET also experienced financial problems four years ago by putting up money for "Cosmos" that it expected--but failed--to recover through outside underwriting.
WNET officials have said recently that they can no longer depend on funding from the usual sources and that, accordingly, they can no longer take such risks. "Now we're really going to do something about it," one station official said Wednesday.
Giammasi said the plan specifically calls for a "restructuring" and "streamlining" of station operations that will result in the elimination of 50 to 75 jobs over the next few years.
She said that there were no plans to interrupt several new series already in various stages of development and/or production. These include "The Mind," a sequel to "The Brain"; "Christianity," a sequel to "Civilization and the Jews"; "Struggles for Poland," a nine-part public affairs series; "Sport in Mankind," a 10-part sports series; "Childhood," another 10-part series, and a multi-part series, "Art of the Western World."
Other public television officials contacted Wednesday shared Weil's view that WNET's decision is not necessarily bad news for PBS.
Peter McGhee, head of national programming at WGBH, said that he foresees "no major change in WNET's role in the national arena." He added: "And to the extent that they are moving to become leaner and meaner, and more accountable for what they produce, they will become a heartier adventurer in this business."
A spokesperson for KCET said, "Any policy that no national programming should go forward until it is fully funded is one that KCET believes in and has adhered to since William Kobin became president in 1983."