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Needed: a new funding formula for public television. A look at TV systems around the world indicates it's time for PBS to stop `banging the tambourine'

What can be done to mend American public television's increasingly uncertain patchwork of financial support? Monitor television critic Arthur Unger got some possible answers from interviews and as a participant in an international conference on public-service television broadcasting. Here he explores some possibilities. THE British television executive was horrified. He and broadcasters from three other countries had just been told how public television in the United States gets its funding. It was, of course, the story of a patchwork quilt of sources, ranging from individual viewer contributions through such gimmicks as auctions to underwriting from corporations and appropriations from state, local, and federal governments. [See chart, above right.] ``A vision of hell, if ever I heard one,'' was the way the Briton summarized it.

We were participating in a conference jointly sponsored by the Aspen Institute in Colorado and its sister organization here in West Berlin. Those attending included some of the world's leading experts in public-service television -- executives from publicly funded TV in Japan, West Germany, Great Britain, and the United States.

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The American contingent included representatives from the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), the Federal Communications Commission, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Council on Foreign Relations. Besides an executive from the British Broadcasting Corporation and one from Japan's NHK, there were a former mayor of Berlin and a member of the German Bundestag in attendance.

Just about every country in the world with public-service or state television (and that includes nearly every country with any form of television) pays for that television with funds raised by a license fee or some variation of it [see box, lower right]. That is, TV-set owners are taxed, usually less than $100 per year, for receiving the signal.

In most cases, public-service television outside the US is assured a yearly income, while the income at PBS depends in great part on the success of fund raising. So, while PBS executives spend a good part of their time ``banging the tambourine,'' as they colorfully put it, the efforts of the public-service TV systems abroad are focused entirely on programming.

After a close look at program schedules of public-service systems around the world and at the conditions under which public broadcasting operates in the US, I was forced to conclude that PBS has done a phenomenal job in providing alternative viewing that can measure its achievements proudly against any other system in the world. But it was also apparent that it's time for the patchwork-quilt approach to be changed.

Within the PBS system there have been more recent signs that a radical change in funding methods is necessary. Last month, John Jay Iselin, president of WNET, New York, the PBS flagship station, resigned after 13 years of frantic fund raising. He had been accused of overextending the station budget in the production of top series before the actual funds were in house.

Earlier, Exxon had announced its gradual withdrawal from funding of WNET's ``Great Performances.'' It was reported that all of the oil companies -- whose underwriting of PBS series at one time had caused some people to call it ``the Petroleum Broadcasting System'' -- were considering major funding cuts as a result of the oil industry's recent drop in income.

In a Monitor interview, PBS president Bruce Christensen said he didn't think PBS is in a funding crisis yet, ``but we are at a circumstance where no one really knows whether or not we will be able to continue to raise money from present sources. We wonder if underwriters will stay with us.... If we knew we could stay where we are, even with the current sources of money, we would not be all that bad off. But most people project that there will be a weakening of that money, simply because of the changing economy. So there must be a change in PBS funding, or there will certainly be a crisis three or four years from now.''

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In the US, there have been a number of ideas over the years about how to pay for public broadcasting. A 1983 task force on long-range financing for public broadcasting listed a number of possibilities:

General tax revenues.

``Spectrum fees,'' by which commercial broadcast stations pay for their use of the airwaves.

A tax levied on broadcasters.

A tax on cable and satellite operators.

A tax collected each time a broadcast license changes hands.

An excise tax on sale of television sets.

A user charge for families owning TV sets.

A tax based on electric or telephone usage.

An incentive for viewer contributions by way of tax credits for contributors.

A check-off line on income tax forms, by which taxpayers designate that a specified sum from their taxes go to public broadcasting.

A tax on commercial communications companies.

A tax on advertising expenditures.

Advertisments or enhanced underwriting credits on PBS.

The idea of a national lottery to pay for public broadcasting also repeatedly surfaces. And more recently there has been the suggestion that a ``flip tax'' be imposed on sales of TV stations -- the seller paying a percentage of the sale price to a general PBS fund.

None of the 1983 ideas seemed likely to be adopted when they were proposed, but executives inside public television believe it's time now for some reconsideration.

One of the members of that 1983 commission was Mr. Christensen. When interviewed in West Berlin at the time of the conference, he told me: ``It is time to go back and review such ideas as a spectrum fee, a sales tax on sales of stations, a tax on licenses. Of course, the commercial broadcasters would be adamant in their opposition, but, given the amount of money being made in commercial television today, there must be a way in which an equitable and reasonable base for funding public television can be worked out -- maybe even a tax on advertising revenues.

``But I am afraid a tax for consumers would be extraordinarily tough to achieve right now,'' Mr. Christensen continued, ``because nobody wants to rock the boat. The funding that was laid out in the 1967 original Carnegie Commission report, which was the basis for the formation of PBS, was never implemented -- an excise tax on TV sets, a one-time tax at purchase. The commission recommended against general appropriations, because of concern that would turn out to be political ..., and that is the direction we've gone.

``I don't think we could go back to the precise recommendation for an excise tax, but we certainly can and must go back to the funding question. Perhaps we should consider a tax on gross advertising receipts of commercial broadcasting or a spectrum fee for use of the [broadcast] spectrum itself. One revolutionary idea is to sell the channels to the highest bidders and use the revenues to go into a permanent endowment for PBS. I don't believe the public would stand for a license fee now. ... It's too late.''

Christensen believes that money collected in any new funding method should be distributed to the PBS member stations and that they should decide how to use it. Thus PBS would remain a decentralized organization, as it is now. Christensen hopes adequate funding might eliminate the need for on-air fund raising.

``It has been almost 20 years,'' he says, ``since the Carnegie Commission Report on Educational TV recommended that there be an insulated, ongoing fund for PBS that was not a federal appropriation. It is time to complete the unfinished business of the Carnegie Report.''

The constant funding uncertainty has resulted in a tendency for the leadership at PBS stations to spend more and more time merely fighting to keep the status quo. Before Mr. Iselin's announced he would be leaving WNET, the station had cut back on national programming because of budgetary problems, even as it was experimenting with expanded on-air credits for corporate underwriters in order to make underwriting more attractive and help meet the financial challenges.

Peter Fannon, president of the National Association of Public Television Stations in Washington, D.C., told me: ``We must go back to square one and consider such funding plans as an excise tax, a tax on the sale of electronic equipment in the commercial marketplace, a transfer tax. New revenues should go into a trust fund managed by a trustee organization.''

Both Mr. Fannon and Mr. Christensen tend to be wary of taking the risk of giving up the current uncertain method of funding without some clear indication that a new method would be an improvement. They both say they believe that PBS must retain a combination of private and public sources. And both insist that PBS should not accept advertising.

Christensen and Fannon have at least one ally in the corporate world. In his recent book ``Good-bye to the Low Profile,'' Mobil's high-profile public relations expert, Herbert Schmertz, suggested a voucher system to pay for public television, among other things. He proposed that the government issue the cultural equivalent of food stamps: ``Below a certain income level, people would be issued vouchers that could be used for any artistic or cultural event of their choice. Each theater, symphony or moviehouse would then send the vouchers to Washington for redemption.... Under this new system, a person could certainly choose to spend some of his vouchers to support public television.''

Estimates vary as to how much money alternative funding methods could bring in, as well as how much of an annual budget PBS needs to operate effectively. These questions will undoubtedly get the consideration they deserve if and when Christensen, Fannon, and other PBS proponents are successful in placing a reconsideration of PBS funding on the national agenda.

Rep. Timothy E. Wirth (D) of Colorado has called PBS ``a national treasure'' as it fills the gaps in cultural programming left by commercial TV. Every day it becomes more apparent that the time has come to eliminate that ``vision of hell'' described at the Berlin conference and work out an adequate funding arrangement that would free PBS from perennial uncertainty over the patchwork funding method.