PBS trumpets individuality as other outlets consolidate

Times Staff Writer

Despite concerns about diminished corporate and government funding, PBS President Pat Mitchell insisted Friday that public television's structure -- as a loose confederation of independent stations -- will be an asset in the face of a rapidly consolidating media landscape.

Addressing TV reporters in Hollywood as part of a twice-annual gathering to preview new shows, Mitchell maintained that for all the frustrations associated with PBS' framework -- such as programs that play on different dates and times in various cities -- the local control the system allows is valuable because "the number of people with the keys to gates ... is getting smaller and smaller."

The roster of media owners, in fact, could shrink further if rules governing television ownership are relaxed this year by the Federal Communications Commission.

PBS hopes to distinguish itself in part through its commitment to public affairs programming, an area that receives relatively short shrift on commercial television. Among upcoming programs in that vein will be a Jan. 28 special on the 108th Congress from MacNeil/Lehrer Productions and "Watergate: Plus 30" -- a collaboration with the Washington Post -- to be broadcast this summer.

A problem warranting more immediate attention, meanwhile, is how to pay for PBS programming -- without undue commercial influence -- in the face of greater competition, a sluggish economy and limited federal support.

PBS' latest setback occurred last month, when ExxonMobil Corp. announced that it would end its sponsorship of "Masterpiece Theatre" in 2004 -- a 32-year affiliation during which the company had committed roughly $250 million to the series and other PBS programs.

PBS officials stressed that they were just beginning to seek a new corporate underwriter and had more than a year to secure a replacement that would commit $8 million to $10 million annually. "The last couple of years have been economically stressful," Mitchell conceded, which has included reduction of staff and belt-tightening.

Mitchell did say that PBS is close to having corporate support in place to renew "American Family," the service's drama about a Hispanic family.

Representatives for WGBH in Boston, the station behind "Masterpiece Theatre," also said that a sequel to "The Forsyte Saga" will premiere a year from now and that a third installment remains a possibility. A new version of "Doctor Zhivago" starring Sam Neill -- which promises to be closer to Boris Pasternak's novel than the 1965 David Lean film -- also will air under that banner next season.

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