BROADCASTING

Static on the screen of public TV

MARY JANIGAN April 21 1986
BROADCASTING

Static on the screen of public TV

MARY JANIGAN April 21 1986

Static on the screen of public TV

BROADCASTING

The hour-long TV feature is a dazzling expedition into a future where television is the only growth industry and ratings are the only measure of good and bad. The program is Max Headroom—the basis for a popular series on Britain’s Channel Four— and its heroes brashly challenge the supremacy of the small screen in a harrowing world of punk hoodlums and computer graphics. Last week Max played to a tough audience: many of the 780 public television producers and executives from 30 countries attending the ninth annual International Public Television Screening Conference (INPUT) in Montreal.

Max left them gasping at the audacity of Channel Four, which had supervised its production by an independent company.

Liz Forgan, Channel Four’s assistant controller of programs, intensified the envy. She pointed out that her network has a mandate from the British Parliament to develop similarly innovative programs. “I do not -

want to be too smug,” she added. “It will depress the rest of you.”

But many of her listeners already seemed to be depressed about the future of their industry. Throughout the week-long conference, a succession of INPUT speakers claimed that many governments are unable, and often unwilling, to fund expensive public TV networks that sometimes attack their policies. In Britain Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has appointed the Peacock Commission to consider whether the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC)—which has clashed with her government over censorshipshould stop relying on public funding alone and accept commercial sponsors. In the United States the administration of President Ronald Reagan has cut funding for public broadcasting by seven per cent since 1982, to $230 million this year. And two weeks ago CBC president Pierre Juneau, citing budget restraints, eliminated 122 hours of programming and 350 jobs. INPUT president Michael Fentiman, a BBC editor,

told Maclean’s that the conference put the problems of public broadcasters into an international context: “Public television is under threat everywhere—it is being squeezed to death.”

In Britain the public television crisis is threatening the fragile economies of all four British networks, including Channel Four. Britain has two BBC networks, currently funded by an annual licence fee paid by each household with a TV, the commercial ITV network

and Channel Four. ITV _

makes money selling advertising for itself and Channel Four, which it subsidizes in return.

Forgan said that if the BBC begins to compete with the others for corporate sponsors, “Channel Four would just melt away.”

The conference also discussed the situation in the United States, where the Reagan administration is involved in a struggle with Congress over the government’s plans for further cuts to public broadcast

funds. The administration plans to reduce its public broadcasting expenditures to $124 million by 1990—while Congress has passed an omnibus bill to increase funding to $350 million by that year. Meanwhile, the administration has almost doubled the budget of the U.S. Information Agency—a governmentcontrolled news service— during the past five years, to $1.2 billion in 1986. Suzanne Weil, the senior programming vicepresident of the Public Broadcasting System, told INPUT delegates that “public television in the United States is probably funded less than in any Third World nation.” Many Canadian delegates were preoccupied with their own problems: the CBC’S latest round of spending cutbacks—inflicted at a time of increased world recognition of the quality of Canadian public television. Channel Four’s Forgan declared that CBC’S The Journal “is recognized as one of the half-dozen shows in the world that are absolutely first quality.” Still, Juneau contends that cutbacks are necessary because the network has a $48-million shortfall. But last week Maclean’s reported that Treasury Board officials calculate the CBC’S shortfall to be closer to $10 millionprompting questions about the necessi_ ty of the cuts. At the INPUT conference, Gerald Caplan, co-chairman of the federal Task Force on Broadcasting Policy, said that few Canadians have rallied to the defence of public broadcasting because it is CBC’s own president who is making the cuts. Added Caplan: “If you are a friend of the CBC, it is very difficult to know how to come to its rescue when you do not know who its enemies are.”

-MARY JANIGAN in

■ Montreal