Critics of Television Seeking to Revamp PBS

Some of television’s most prominent critics, concerned about what they call the politicalization of public television, have organized a committee aimed at revamping the Public Broadcasting Service after a new President is elected next year.

“Any new Administration will be more receptive to our ideas than the Reagan Administration, which would like to effectively kill PBS,” said John Wicklein, a former official of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting who now directs a public-affairs reporting program at Ohio State University.

Wicklein’s “Working Group for Public Broadcasting” met Nov. 20-22 at Ohio State University to prepare for the challenge of a new Congress and a new Administration after the 1988 Presidential elections. He is now seeking funding to form a permanent organization to try to implement the proposals that the group put forth.

In an interview, Wicklein said that the group’s concerns about the independence of public broadcasting from both political and commercial pressures are not new. He noted the Reagan Administration’s repeated efforts to slash the budget for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the agency responsible for funding the public-television system, and cited long-standing criticism that PBS’ dependence on corporate support compromises the integrity of its programming.


Wicklein’s committee outlined the following policy and funding goals as high priorities:

--More federally generated funds for PBS.

--As much as 50% of the funds to go directly to the country’s 300 public television stations, instead of being disbursed by CPB, as they are now.

--The termination of political appointments to the CPB board or any future PBS oversight body.


The most radical proposal would be a re-organization of the public television system that would eliminate CPB and perhaps even PBS, and introduce a new, single operating agency to administer and program the system, controlled by what the group members called a non-political board of directors.

Re-structuring the system met with the strongest resistence from prominent PBS officials who attended the conference.

“It’s not that I don’t think there should be no change at all, but changes have been made, and I think both PBS and CPB are pretty good,” William Baker, president of New York’s WNET-TV, said afterwards. He expressed fear about placing too much centralized control in a single agency, with a single governing body or executive.

“This is one of many meetings that should take place to honorably and fairly look into an institution that belongs to the public,” Baker said.


Nevertheless, members of the group sound determined to proceed as though it was they who were in a position to re-organize public broadcasting.

“I really believe public television is in a period of suspended animation, with a lack of specific direction,” said Ned Schmurman, an independent producer. “But now we have an opportunity to really make some changes, because such talk is in the air and because there is to be an election and possibly a new kind of Administration.

“Besides,” he added, “there should always be this kind of ferment, pushing for change and reform.”

Others on the committee included Les Brown, an executive with Channels Magazine; Everett Parker, former director of communications for the United Church of Christ; Ned Schmurman, an independent producer; Mable Haddock, executive director of the National Black Programming Consortium; George Stoney, a professor of film and TV at New York University, and Larry Daressa, co-chair of the California-based National Coalition of Independent Public Broadcasting Producers.