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Counterpunch

Rosenberg Errs in PBS Criticism

November 07, 1994|ERVIN S. DUGGAN | Ervin S. Duggan is president of PBS, the Public Broadcasting Service, based in Washington.

In a recent column, The Times' redoubtable critic, Howard Rosenberg, deplored an educational game show on public television ("A 'Masterpiece' It Isn't," Calendar, Oct. 10). It's certainly his right to criticize. He should know, however, that the program, "Think Twice," is an experiment--to test, among other things, shorter program lengths in our schedule. If "Think Twice" doesn't work, or if it fails to comport with the serious mission of public television, viewers can be sure that PBS and its member stations will take appropriate action.

Rosenberg errs badly, however, when he extrapolates, from one program he doesn't like to a general trend toward mediocrity in public television. His conclusion is doubly puzzling, considering that he likes so many of our programs.

He lists "Prime Suspect," "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour," "Frontline," "P.O.V.," "National Geographic's China: Beyond the Clouds," "FDR" and "The Civil War," for example, as emblems of our excellence. He also compliments our upcoming "Democracy Project," a comprehensive effort to enrich our news, analysis and public affairs programming in time for the 1996 elections.

We appreciate the positive attention Rosenberg has paid to public TV in the past. We believe that it's quite a stretch, however, to cite a half-hour program as evidence of a general down slide.

Rosenberg takes us to task for two programs we chose not to fund and distribute, citing these as missed opportunities to provide good programming. In our judgment, these decisions--about which reasonable people, of course, can disagree--demonstrate something else: that PBS is capable of making tough editorial decisions without bending to outside pressure, of which there is always plenty.

In the case of a "Tales of the City" sequel, we stuck to our decision in the face of much public pressure after determining that the price tag was out of reach for PBS. In the case of "Rights & Wrongs," our programming professionals judged that that series did not treat the issues of human rights as skillfully as its producers believed they had.

Rosenberg's baleful view of public television did not reach beyond our prime-time programs, and that's understandable; he's a TV critic. Viewers should know, however, that PBS and public TV are busy during other parts of the day and in ways that are not always visible on the screen--namely, in a wide range of educational and technological activities.

PBS is the nation's leading provider of video programming for kindergarten through 12th-grade classrooms, and the largest source of college telecourses in the world. Our programs reach 30 million students and nearly 2 million teachers. More than 325,000 adults a year take PBS college-credit telecourses. None of the commercial channels Rosenberg mentions as duplicating PBS' efforts comes close to this dedication to education.

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PBS provides "PTV, the Ready to Learn Service" to stations to further the national education goal of helping young citizens enter school with some basic skills in place. Other initiatives include "Going the Distance," which allows students, for the first time, to earn an associate of arts degree from 60 colleges by taking, at home, telecourses developed by public television, and "PBS Mathline," to help teach greater proficiency in math.

Beyond these services to formal education, we at PBS are focusing on new services to the public through technology--especially to poor people, people in remote areas and others with special needs. We've become a pioneer in digital television technology, and we're determined to be at the forefront of educational multimedia. The information superhighway, in short, is something we helped invent.

Like any nonprofit organization, PBS faces a chronic money shortage. But we manage to deliver a high level of quality year in and year out.

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The entire budget for public television--public and private money--is less than Fox Broadcasting paid for the rights to broadcast NFL football alone! Our federal support amounts to less than $1 per person annually in tax money--a bargain by any standard. We use each of those dollars to call forth four or five other dollars from private givers, corporations and foundations.

We at PBS will, of course, make occasional mistakes. And certainly not every PBS program will please every critic or viewer. But the real trend in public television will always be toward excellence. Your local public library may have a clunkhead book or two on its shelves. But the institution is still valuable--a signal of our public commitment to learning. The same is true of public television.

One swallow doesn't make a spring, and one program doesn't necessarily constitute a trend.

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