PBS 'Playhouse' Faces Prospect of Fading Role : Television: After the next two seasons, productions will likely drop from nine to five.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The question from Ward Chamberlin, chairman of "American Playhouse" and a longtime stalwart in public television, came almost plaintively: "Do you get any hints from Jennifer about what PBS plans for American drama?"

In the arena of public TV, that question has now taken center stage.

The answer, it turns out, is quite hazy.

Chamberlin, who headed WETA in Washington for 16 years, is talking about Jennifer Lawson, PBS' executive vice president of programming, and the decision to drastically cut funding to his New York-based production house--a move that dramatically downsizes "Playhouse's" role in public broadcasting. As matters now stand, production specifically for PBS will come to a halt in about two years.

For 13 seasons, since its January, 1982, debut with John Cheever's first original teleplay, "The Shady Hill Kidnapping," "American Playhouse" has dominated the landscape of American drama on PBS. It was created specifically for that purpose, and to counter the perception that PBS cared more about British imports such as "Masterpiece Theatre" and "Mystery!" than productions by and about Americans--who, after all, foot its bills.

Of 181 "Playhouse" productions to date, more than 40 were released first as feature films, including "Stand and Deliver," "Longtime Companion," "El Norte," "Testament" and "The Thin Blue Line." They then had TV premieres on PBS. But the series' signature work was always original drama, such as "A Walk in the Woods," "True West," "Sunday in the Park With George," "Who Am I This Time?" and the adaptation of Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City" that aired in January and was PBS' highest-rated dramatic miniseries in more than a decade.

In March, however, "American Playhouse" made the stunning announcement that it was going commercial--becoming an independent film production company, Playhouse Pictures Inc. PBS, citing financial pressures, said it would be scaling back funding for the series, from $6.7 million this fiscal year and next to $1.7 million in 1995-96 and $857,550 in 1996-97.

At first, PBS viewers won't notice the difference. According to Lindsay Law, president of "American Playhouse," the same number of productions that were presented this season will be broadcast in each of the next two seasons--nine (half of what was served up in the first season, when "American Playhouse" was presented weekly instead of its present sporadic schedule).

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Then the number is likely to drop to about five per year for three years--these being the 15 movies that Playhouse Pictures hopes to make in the next three years in partnership with the Samuel Goldwyn Co. Following theatrical release, the initial five will have their TV premieres on PBS, but the other 10 are expected to be shown first on cable.

Nothing is certain after that with regard to "American Playhouse," but Lawson and other PBS officials hope Playhouse Pictures will be successful enough to continue suppling the non-commercial network with five films a year.

Meanwhile, Lawson said that PBS will be seeking out drama programs "in the same way we consider documentary projects now"--on a project-by-project basis. Several programs are in "research and development," she noted, citing as a potential miniseries "Diamonds of Color," being written by Charles Fuller ("A Soldier's Story").

And Kathy Quattrone, vice president for programming, said that KCTS-TV in Seattle is developing a science-fiction miniseries.

"What we hope happens is that (Playhouse Pictures) will continue to provide a steady stream of product, and that we can also have other initiatives that will bear fruit along the way," Quattrone said.

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Chamberlin and Law are skeptical that a consistent, high-quality drama presence can be maintained in this way.

"I think they're dreaming if they think the few things they have in development are going to get produced," Law said.

Law is unhappy about "Playhouse's" declining relationship with PBS. "It's been extremely disappointing," he said. "I suppose it's been a long time coming. Each year for the past (few) years, the money has been decreased, so we've never been in a growing situation; it's always been a make-do situation. And I suppose that's true because we were always able to make up that money through private investment or foreign pre-sales. The more money we raised, the more money they took away from us. . . . It's possible we were just taken for granted."

In a dozen years, PBS invested nearly $100 million in "American Playhouse"--but the total value of those productions through outside investors amounted to $213.7 million.

"If anybody abandoned a name as good as 'American Playhouse' in the corporate world, they'd be out of a job without a parachute in no time," Chamberlin asserted.

Chamberlin said some stations "began to complain to PBS they weren't getting their money's worth out of 'Playhouse,' they weren't getting enough audiences. (Some) figures were circulated . . . so there was some pressure. Our films and plays are usually not mainline. They deal with subjects that are not everybody's cup of tea."

Quattrone denied that controversial content had any impact or that viewer numbers-per-dollar were tallied at PBS.

As for the possibility that "American Playhouse" status will be diminished because there will be fewer productions and they will have premiered elsewhere, Quattrone insisted that it is "yet to be seen whether it does have any impact on the prestige or certainly any noticeable impact on viewership."

Law thinks viewers will be the ultimate losers. "American Playhouse," he said, has "illuminated issues that the rest of television isn't even touching. Sometimes (others) wrap it up all neat and sugary, and that isn't at all the way life is. Now, some people argue, 'Who wants to come home at the end of the day and be challenged by a program they watch on TV?' But that is why PBS is there. It isn't there to help lull people through the evening hours."

He recalled teaching a class at Yale two semesters ago and asking his students how they had "come to be playwrights, whereas everyone else these days is trying to write movies, novels. And all of them had been introduced to theater on television."

On PBS' "Playhouse"?

"Exactly."

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