Can ''old-fashioned'' over-the-air public broadcasting survive in our new cabled-television society?
That's the question many broadcasters, legislators, and viewers were asking only a year or so ago.
The immediate answer: Not only is the Public Broadcasting Service surviving, but in terms of program quality and number of viewers, it is thriving.
But there's a more important question to many viewers: Can public TV continue to thrive - especially with its fine programs and commercial-free airwaves intact - as government support declines.
That's where corporate America may come in. Will it play the role of modern Medicis by helping to fill the gap as public funding dwindles? And what will it require from public TV in return?
According to Dale M. Rhodes, PBS director of research, viewership has more than doubled in the last five years, despite increased competition from other program services. During the time commercial broadcasting has lost 10 percent of its viewers, PBS has greatly boosted its average share of homes that have their TV on, so that PBS now has the largest weekly prime-time audience ever. More than 30 percent of all TV households - nearly 42 million a week - now view PBS.
Meanwhile, those pessimists who saw cable TV causing the demise of PBS seem to have been proven wrong, so far. CBS Cable, a cultural channel, has announced it will cease broadcasting, after sustaining estimated losses of $50 million in its initial year. Other cultural channels are also experiencing major money problems. PBS, on the other hand, has blithely scheduled another year of high-quality programming.
But just how does PBS, a loosely affiliated group of close to 300 public broadcasting stations, manage to survive and even thrive in an economy in which so many enterprises are going under, or at least radically tightening their belts?
Government funding through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is down, but not so much that it has destroyed the system. And PBS fundraisers are busily searching for new sources of money - ranging from advertising to magazine publishing.
Congressional funding, allocated in advance, hit a peak of $172 million in 1982, but will go down to $137 million in 1983, then slide to $130 million in 1984.
Yet corporate funding seems to be holding steady, with a total of almost $39 million from corporate sources in 1982, up from under $34 million in 1981. President Reagan has called for greater corporate initiative in supporting US cultural institutions. Corporate America, despite the current economic crunch, seems to be listening.
''There's a long tradition in our civilization of cultural patronage,'' says PBS President Lawrence Grossman. ''At one time way back, it was the Church or individual millionaires who provided the funding. The corporate sector plays the role of the Medicis now. Many corporate leaders recognize the fact that they have an obligation to play a major role in the quality of our society.''
Corporations also recognize pragmatic reasons for underwriting public TV. But will it be able to maintain or increase its support in the years ahead? What alternatives are there to corporate support?
These and other questions are examined in this special section. The answers are important ones for anybody who savors quality television. In a civilization where television has become an environment more than just an entertainment, the answers are important for anyone who wants to improve the quality of life in our society.