Public TV Stations Cash In on Drives : Television: March fund-raising efforts show money pledged up 8.3% amid the Washington cutback debate.


Against the backdrop of steep cuts for public broadcasting being debated and voted on in the House of Representatives, public television stations across the nation were holding their March fund-raising drives. So how did they fare?

Substantially better than usual--particularly at WPBA-TV in Atlanta, where House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who has called for eliminating federal funding to public broadcasting, made a 30-second spot urging viewers to match his $2,000 contribution earlier this month.

WPBA reported raising a record $104,000 in 13 days of pledging, compared to $42,000 last year in nine days. But spokesman Eric D. Weston credited the success to more than Gingrich, saying "excellent programming" and "new management" also contributed.

In Los Angeles, KCET-TV Channel 28 concluded its drive Monday night with pledges totaling $1.7 million. The 20-day drive this year topped the March, 1994, drive, which had been three days longer, by $205,127.

KPBS-TV Channel 15 in San Diego also was running ahead of last year, while KOCE-TV Channel 50 in Huntington Beach was a bit lower on a per-night average.

William H. Kobin, KCET's president and chief executive officer, said he was "very, very pleased with the support that the community showed us during this pledge drive, which is clearly a reaction to proposed federal budget cuts."

Kobin cautioned, however, that "to expect this unusually generous support to be there on a continuing basis and compensate for the federal commitment would be absurd." He added that "quality programming . . . remains in jeopardy."

The House voted last week to cut 15%, or $47 million, from the $305 million allocated to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for fiscal 1996, beginning in October, and 30% from $315 million for fiscal 1997. The legislation, part of a massive, $17.2-billion recision bill, is now pending in the Senate. Later this spring, the process of securing public broadcasting funding for fiscal 1998 begins, and that battle could prove even tougher.

CPB currently receives $285.6 million from the federal government, although the annual income for public TV and radio is $1.8 billion, primarily from the private sector.

"Undoubtedly the congressional leadership that wants to cut federal funding for public broadcasting will point to the success of membership drives like this one as evidence that public support could make up for the disappearance of federal funds," Kobin said. "This is unrealistic."

PBS reported that, through Sunday night, of the 82 stations that provided comparison numbers between this year and last, the amount of money pledged was up 8.3%, the number of pledges was up 4.4% and the average individual pledge was up 3.8%.

A PBS official pointed out, however, that the network was unable to estimate how much of this increase was due to the funding debate in Washington, because some stations made a "big deal of it" while others did not.

With a drive three days longer this year than last, KOCE-TV in Huntington Beach netted $343,090 for 21 days, compared to $295,431 last year.

KOCE spokeswoman Judith Schaefer said Orange County's bankruptcy problems may have accounted for the decrease of about $75 in the average nightly take. But the congressional battle probably kept it from being worse, she indicated. "People who may have been watching public TV and not pledging realized that their contributions are more important than ever."

San Diego's KPBS-TV said it was 19% ahead of last year through Sunday night, to $387,000. While some of the increase might be due to a changed computer system, which allows the station to target messages to particular viewer demographics, program director Patricia Finn said she was quite certain the funding wars were playing a key role. "That's part of our message every time we open our mouths," she said.

Whether PBS viewers are in for longer and more more frequent pledge drives if the federal cuts are approved is up in the air.

KCET spokeswoman Barbara Goen said it's "too early to tell." KOCE's Schaefer noted that "until we know exactly what's going to happen (to the CPB budget), we really can't say what we're going to do." Finn noted that KPBS "might have to take advantage" of popular programs for more pledge drives, perhaps in June.

Times Staff Writer Zan Dubin in Orange County contributed to this report.

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