The finest British television from the British Broadcasting Corporation will soon disappear from the TV screens of most American homes, according to American television's top purchaser of BBC programming -- Mobil.
Herbert Schmertz, the Mobil vice-president in charge of promotion and advertising, the man mainly responsible for Mobil's underwriting of PBS's "Masterpiece Theater" for the past ten years, told the Monitor he believes the BBC has made a major error in signing an "exclusivity deal" for its programming for the next ten years with a new cable network. The BBC agreement is with RCTV , a newly formed pay-TV division of Rockefeller Center Inc.
At present, the financially troubled BBC has a distribution agreement with Time-Life Television which runs through March 1982. However, since the arrangement has proven unprofitable for Time- Life, it is expected that Arthur R. Taylor, former president of CBS, who heads up the RCTV operation, will probably negotiate for an earlier takeover of the BBC productions.
PBS president Larry Grossman, already on the record as believing that Public Broadcasting must find new areas of specialization for itself, perhaps in distribution of quality programming to all levels of TV, claims the changeover will have little impact on PBS, since "Masterpiece Theater" is the only regular program which consistently utilizes BBC-originated material. However, there are many other programs such as "Nova" and "World" in which BBC material figures importantly.
Mr. Grossman even implied that it might be a boon to PBS in that "the new pay-cable network will be airing the BBC shows first, and when we acquire them, they'll be at lower cost to us."
According to RCTV, their BBC programming will not be offered to commercial or public TV until more than a year has elapsed after airing on the RCTV network.
Responded Mr. Schmertz: "Mobil is not in the rerun business. I think the BBC -- and Mr. Grossman -- are operating under the false assumption that we are going to be wanting their stuff after it's been on cable TV. There is no way we will ever buy programming that has already appeared. Once something has run anywhere, it doesn't have much value for us. It's hard for me to see who will buy it after it reaches its limited few million cable audience. We are the biggest underwriter on PBS, and I assure you we won't touch it."
Mr. Schmertz told the Monitor that, under his direction, "Mobil will continue what we have been doing -- on PBS as well as our own 'ad hoc' network of independent stations. But I am not worried about quality material -- it is available. The BBC recently has not been turning out stuff that is all that good, anyhow. And with their terrible money problem, it's going to get worse. We will just buy more material from other producers -- we've already bought programming from other commercial British networks. And we might even produce some ourselves.
"It is really sad for BBC," said Mr. Schmertz. "After all, most of their American awards have always come from the airing of their shows on PBS. But what is most sad is the spectacle of the great public television system of England saying that it will make it impossible for its programming to air on American public television, at least until after it has aired somewhere else first." It remains to be seen, however, if American PBS viewers without cable TV will be as concerned as Mr. Schmertz as to whether or not the programs have already aired on pay TV.
Mr. Schmertz was also skeptical about the rush of new cable systems toward quality programming. Both CBS and ABC have announced new cable operations which will concentrate on quality "culture" programming. In addition, there is the new Bravo culture network, with PBS itself also attempting to set up a culture cable system of its own. Only NBC, among the commercial networks, does not seem to be involved in cable planning, cultural or otherwise.
Said Mr. Schmertz -- the man who, it should not be forgotten, anticipated the PBS audience for "Masterpiece Theater" and was almost single-handedly responsible for the airing of "Upstairs Downstairs": "All these organizations setting up companies for special cultural programming are going to find that there is just not enough of an audience out there, especially if you ask them to pay for something that they have been getting free." He was referring to opera, concerts, and ballets which are now available free on shows such as "Live From Lincoln Center" on PBS.
Mr. Schmertz says the movement to pay TV and the tendency to anticipate the abandonment of over-the-air broadcasting is misguided. "I think the whole cable thing is a myth. It is ridiculous to think that a few million people willing to pay $10 or more per month are suddenly going to replace the huge 50- to 100 -million audiences reachable right now on commercial TV. PBS, too, is capable of reaching many more millions today than pay TV systems. Cable -- and pay tV -- is still many years away for most TV viewers.