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Tuning In The Global Village : Worldnet Spreads Word From U.S. : But critics say Washington's programming isn't aggressive or sophisticated enough for its audience.

October 20, 1992|STEPHANIE GRACE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — On one telecast, Environmental Protection Agency chief William K. Reilly discusses water quality in the Great Lakes. On another, Dizzy Gillespie demonstrates African influences on American music. On a third, U.S. Trade Representative Carla Anderson Hills expounds on the merits of unfettered global trade.

PBS? CNN? C-SPAN? Wrong. These discussions were not broadcast by any of the public affairs networks familiar to U.S. television viewers and cable subscribers. In fact, while they were staged and financed by the U.S. government, most Americans could not even tune in.

The three teleconferences were beamed by request to select audiences in locales as far off as Canada, Namibia and Latvia under the auspices of Worldnet, the global television network operated by the U.S. Information Agency.

The United States is only one of a number of countries looking for ways to use the rapidly expanding reach of satellite television to take its message to the global village.

Worldnet advocates say the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union combined with growing interest in political democracy and market economics have made information about the American way a hot commodity all over the world. But there is a debate over whether Washington is using its international broadcasting capabilities aggressively enough.

Worldnet currently produces original video teleconferences, generally with participants who gather at one of America's overseas embassies. Often the teleconferences are broadcast for mass consumption by foreign television networks. The service also offers an around-the-clock schedule of news and public affairs programs originally produced for PBS and other networks.

But some officials say these offerings are inadequate. They argue that Worldnet should start producing its own sophisticated programming.

Last summer, a presidential advisory commission recommended a dramatic restructuring of U.S. international broadcasting operations to put more emphasis on television and less on the radio services Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty.

"The U.S. government and policy-makers need to get into the 20th Century and start using TV," said Tom Korologos, the Washington lobbyist who heads the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy.

George Gerbner, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communications, agreed. "The export of American culture is very profitable, but it often turns people against us; they assume that what they see in TV and movies is what America is all about. That is not necessarily in America's interests. Presenting an American point of view might be seen as a good investment."

Television operations now receive only $22 million of USIA's total budget of $1.2 billion. Besides Worldnet, the agency also operates TV Marti, which is aimed at Cuban audiences but is routinely jammed by Fidel Castro's government.

And despite the advisory commission's report, many on Capitol Hill consider Worldnet a low priority, particularly during the current budget crunch.

"I don't think it's a useful activity. The free-enterprise system produces a much higher quality of international television," said Peter Galbraith, senior staff adviser to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

He cited a 1988 survey in 11 Western European countries which found that fewer than 250,000 people watched Worldnet's programming each day. Worldnet officials say those numbers are out of date and do not reflect viewership in other parts of the world where access to differing points of view is more limited.

"USIA hasn't caught up with the changes in the world," Galbraith maintained. "When the agency was launched in the 1940s, it operated in an information-deficit world. Now we live in an information-surplus world."

Both sides to the debate cite CNN's rapid global expansion to support their positions. Worldnet advocates say CNN's success only underlines the ability of television to cross international borders. But opponents say the nearly universal availability of CNN and other global broadcasting systems makes government-sponsored television irrelevant.

When Sen. Harris Wofford (D-Pa.) introduced a measure to eliminate Worldnet's entire $22-million budget last year, he noted that then-Secretary of State James A. Baker III had not appeared on a single Worldnet broadcast in his first 2 1/2 years on the job.

"When American policy-makers wish to speak to the world they do so on CNN, not Worldnet. And they do so for one simple reason: People watch CNN," Wofford argued. (His proposal to scuttle Worldnet was defeated, and Baker has since appeared on Worldnet.)

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