NEW YORK — Two television networks and hundreds of communities nationwide are joining forces for an unprecedented 18-month attack on America's "hidden problem"--illiteracy.
Spurred by reports that America has the highest illiteracy rate among industrialized nations, ABC and PBS will drive home an important message at the national and local level: It's never too late to learn.
"This is something you can do something about," James Duffy, president of communications at ABC, said in an interview. "You can teach people, no matter how old they are, to learn to read and write."
The Department of Labor says the United States now ranks 49th in the world in literacy. Japan is No. 1, with a literacy rate of more than 96%.
Almost one-third of the U.S. population is semiliterate or worse, with 2 million people added to the illiterate ranks every year. More than 23 million people cannot read or write past a fourth-grade level; another 30 million to 35 million cannot read or write beyond the eighth-grade level.
Nearly three years ago, President Reagan issued a call for a "national literacy initiative," but it was accompanied by no new federal programs or appropriations. He just said, in effect, let's get literate.
This year, ABC and PBS responded by launching a public-service campaign called Project Literacy U.S.--PLUS. The broadcast blitz will run from now through next June and will include documentaries, public-service spots, prime-time dramas and even a toll-free hot line for illiterate viewers who want help.
The hope is that the massive media exposure, coupled with hundreds of community outreach programs sponsored by local businesses and organizations, will fire up a national movement to combat illiteracy and ultimately curb an economic crisis.
Labor Secretary William Brock reports that illiteracy is now costing the nation $225 billion a year in lost industrial productivity, unrealized tax revenues, welfare and unemployment payments and the cost of crime and prisons. If the nation continues to produce new jobs at the current rate, there will be more vacancies than qualified people to fill them.
There is no one cause for illiteracy. Schools, parents, even students themselves share in the blame--and so, in a way, does television.
Educators and parents have long argued that young people aren't interested in learning to read and write because they don't have to. Television is an easy source of passive information and entertainment. Kids only have to tune in and drop out.
A recent Roper study paints a bleak picture: The data shows that television ranks second only to family as a daily source of personal satisfaction or enjoyment. Friends come in third. Reading does not rank.
Duffy doesn't believe television is a major factor in the high illiteracy rate, but he does say it's a problem.
"You and I both know that if anybody does anything seven hours a day, then that's not balanced with what they could be doing elsewhere."
Whether or not television has contributed to the problem, it can go a long way toward solving it--and PLUS may be a giant first step.
President Reagan has proclaimed September "Adult Literacy Awareness Month." The on-air phase of PLUS kicks off Wednesday at 10 p.m. with an ABC News documentary, "At a Loss for Words . . . Illiterate in America."
Then there will be another report on the subject Thursday night on ABC's "20/20." Illiteracy also will be the subject of "This Week With David Brinkley" Sunday, and "World News Tonight" will offer a multipart report next week. PBS will broadcast "A Chance to Learn," a documentary about community projects to combat illiteracy, on Sept. 17.
For the last eight months, ABC and PBS have been mobilizing community support. Over the next 10 months, ABC and PBS will focus on the illiteracy crisis in every time block of television, from morning news shows to daytime soap operas, from evening news, magazine programs and documentaries to sitcoms and dramas.
And every one of ABC's more than 200 affiliate stations is also getting into the act by creating local programming about the problem and working with organizations to help the illiterate.
Duffy has been working almost full-time on the PLUS campaign, making sure that when the on-air onslaught begins, the mechanisms are in place to provide help in every community for those who ask for a hand.
"The beauty of it is we could really make a difference," Duffy said.