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PBS: making do with less

It's back to the drawing board now for the Public Broadcasting System as it seeks government funds for three fiscal years later in this decade: 1987, '88, and '89.

Both PBS and the new Congress should realize that they will probably have to plan on an authorization of considerably less money than sought this year, if President Reagan is reelected. The President says he supports a proposal of $646 million, spread over three years. He has now vetoed as too expensive two higher amounts, the first for $761 million, the most recent for $675 million. When the second proposal was before the House of Representatives, President Reagan had warned that he would veto it; but the bill was passed, then vetoed.

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A major challenge to PBS will be to find ways to trim expenditures or adjust priorities or scheduling so that despite the lower anticipated budget it can produce creative new programs, rather than having to rely on reruns. One of two key reasons that congressional PBS backers had sought the higher budget figures is that half the funds with which PBS develops new programs come from Uncle Sam. The second reason is that a number of stations, especially smaller ones, need expensive, up-to-date equipment, which higher funding would have made feasible.

For the future, PBS might broaden its political support by providing more air time, hence recognition, to cultural activities in heartland America. To the casual viewer it often seems as though a disproportionately large percentage of PBS shows emanate from New York, Boston, or the West Coast. Granted, that is where much of the cultural frontier concentrates. Yet one of the major trends of the past two decades has been the growth of high-quality cultural institutions in smaller communities across the United States. Although already noted, this achievement deserves additional recognition.

Meanwhile, PBS officials would be well advised to figure out how to make the most effective use of the federal funding that Congress and the President are likely to approve.

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