In an attempt to increase its local audience and its subscriber base, public-TV station WNET has decided to expand to a 24-hour daily broadcast schedule.

"I believe there's a whole new constituency out there," WNET president William F. Baker said in a telephone interview. "It remains to be seen whether or not there is such an audience, and whether they'll show the (financial) support we'll need to sustain the schedule."

He cited night owls, shift workers and students as among the potential viewers for whom public-television programming might provide alternatives to overnight programs on the commercial stations.

Of the country's 300 public-television stations, many of which have reported a recent decline in viewer support, only WTVS-TV in Detroit and WMHT-TV in Schenectady, N. Y. currently operate 24 hours a day. WNET, the country's largest public-TV station, claims to have held steady with local viewer support, but station officials hope that the expansion to a 24-hour operation will swell the ranks of its current list of 325,000 financial contributors.

WNET plans to inaugurate the new schedule on Sept. 16, the day that marks the station's 25th anniversary. It would fill the gap between 1-7 a.m., when it is presently is off the air.

Earlier this year, WNET considered filling the early morning hours with a home shopping service, but decided against it. The station now plans to program the six-hour block with rebroadcasts of such programs as "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour," "Great Performances," "Upstairs, Downstairs," "Monty Python" and old films.

Baker, selected last April to succeed John Jay Iselin, who had served as WNET president for 13 years, said that he thought of expanding the broadcast schedule "my first day on the job."

"It broke my heart to see snow come on-screen at 1 a.m. in the biggest city in the country, where 15 to 20% of the television sets are known to be on after 1 a.m. All my years in commercial broadcasting made me think it was a waste," said Baker, who previously served as president of Group W Television.

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