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Commercial-free TV seen through long-range lens

Robert MacNeil doesn't look worried about the future.

With plans to expand the MacNeil/Lehrer Report to a full hour . . . with a budget kicked up from $7.5 million to $20 million . . . with American Express coming forward to offer the needed funds and an extensive promotional campaign. . . .

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What's to worry?

MacNeil's fortunes may not be characteristic of public television's immediate future. ''The mood around public television is one of great poverty,'' he acknowledges, adding that congressionally mandated funds for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting have fallen from $172 million in fiscal 1982 to $137 million in fiscal 1983. But he isn't predicting any disasters, either.

Chatting pleasantly over corned beef and cabbage in a noisy restaurant downstairs from his New York City office, MacNeil projects a mood of cheery optimism that wears well against his patented dry civility. Robert MacNeil is probably one of the few men left in the news business who can rightfully answer to the old-fashioned calling of ''gentlemen of the press.'' Meticulously polite and considerate, he is to Dan Rather what Alistair Cooke is to Ed McMahon: gracious civility poised against the hard sell.

But make no mistake, Robert MacNeil is selling a product over this lunch table - the future of public television. And like everyone else in the medium, he knows the future depends upon money and politics. ''There's a basic political decision to be made,'' he said. ''Does the society want to say that people who can afford cultural TV (in the form of cable or direct broadcasting) can have it , and those who can't don't deserve it?''

''There are a lot of Americans out there who are not rich and well educated - just intelligent,'' he continued, pointing out that they deserve the kind of programming envisioned in the great expectations of cable TV and direct broadcast.

These expectations once cast shadows over all public television's tomorrows. ''Public TV was scared by the threat of cable 12 to 18 months ago,'' he said. ''But, like any great scare, it wore off. If this is the decade of cable, it may be cable's only decade.'' MacNeil argues that cable is being outstripped by direct broadcast, that its potential numbers have been largely inflated, that it has sold itself into nearly unachievable promises in order to capture major municipal franchises.

Reminded that other forms of pay television - direct broadcast, for instance - may replace the threat of cable, he answers that ''there are millions of people out there for whom (the cost of subscribing to such services) is prohibitive, as well as those who don't want to pay for television services.''

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MacNeil acknowledges that those who do decide to pay will compose a large portion of public TV's current audience, which is generally upscale. But he doesn't think public television should adapt its programming priorities to a future audience that may be less affluent and more rural. He thinks that would be the tail wagging the dog.

''What are you going to do?'' he asked rhetorically. ''Give them recipes for black-eyed peas and advice about surviving on a reservation? Public television is not meant to serve an elite audience; but it should be a vehicle to make elite culture available to anyone who wants it and can't afford it.''

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