During last fall's election, congressional Republicans promised to cut federal money for public broadcasting as part of their taxpayer relief program. Recently, it has become clear that they intend to make good on this promise: the House budget plan calls for complete elimination of all federal appropriations by the year 1998.
Inside the world of public broadcasting, the growing sense of jeopardy has led to anguished deliberations over what to do. Of the many passionately debated issues, none has produced more passion or more debate than this one: Should public television, long defined as a noncommercial medium, start to accept commercials?
Many station managers say that advertisements -- and the pressure they carry with them for higher ratings -- would mean the end of public television in its current form. In addition, some argue, advertising could end up costing stations money rather than earning it for them. But among the most outspoken backers of the idea are the heads of several major public stations, including WHYY in Philadelphia, WTTW in Chicago and KETC in St. Louis.
"I support the notion of public television being able to use advertising," said Michael Hardgrove, KETC's president and chief executive officer. "Just to stay even, there have to be viable new revenue sources. I think you have to try it."
Big chunk for public stations
Federal support for public broadcasting, which is funneled through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, is expected to be about $290 million this year. This is a relatively small sum for the federal government but a large one for public broadcasting. It provides 14 percent of the budgets of the nation's 345 public television and 524 public radio stations.
Public broadcasters maintain, moreover, that the federal support is disproportionately important because it is the "seed money" that then attracts contributions from businesses, foundations and viewers.
Though member stations have diverging views on advertising, the Public Broadcasting Service is, for now, opposed to it. The parent organization has proposed that a trust fund be created to make up the shortfall.
The fund, according to a proposal PBS offered recently in conjunction with National Public Radio, would get income from transfer fees on the sale of stations, fees on users of the broadcast spectrum and contributions from commercial broadcasters in lieu of public service. But given the mood in Congress on new fees and taxes, the prospects for the fund's creation appear dim.
"You keep coming back to advertising, because that's what Congress is talking about," Mr. Hardgrove said.
Growing support on the Hill
On Capitol Hill, the pressure to accept advertising is growing. The Senate budget plan would continue federal subsidies for public broadcasting, but it includes no numbers, and it explicitly endorses advertising as an additional source of revenue.
Sen. Hank Brown, R-Colo., has proposed that federal financing continue but that stations be allowed to sell advertising to make additional money. The advertising revenue would then be split 50-50 with the government. If public broadcasters resist the proposal, he said in a telephone interview, "then what will go ahead is simply a reduction in funding."
Under current law, public television stations are not allowed to broadcast commercials. Instead, they are allowed to show what are known as "enhanced" underwriting credits. To viewers, these credits may look and sound a lot like commercials, but there are some fairly significant differences.
While commercials usually show people using a product and include an appeal to buy it, underwriting credits may do neither. They may show a corporate logo or a picture of a product, but they may not use comparative language or show people endorsing the product. And they are prohibited from issuing what is officially known as "an inducement to buy."
It is unclear whether any restrictions will be put on commercials if Congress votes to allow public television stations to accept them.
Advocates of advertising insist that if it were handled properly, it would not change the essential nature of public television. They say that the commercials should be tasteful and appropriate and that they would not be that different from the "enhanced" underwriting credits used now.
"I think we can meet the challenge without succumbing to the lowest common denominator," said Frederick Breitenfeld Jr., president of WHYY in Philadelphia. He suggested that advertising be limited to four minutes an hour, that it not be shown during children's programming and that it not be allowed to interrupt shows. He added that some of the underwriting credits that already appear on public television "are so close to commercials it's a matter of talking it over at the bar whether they're ads or not."
Opponents, however, who include a majority of public television station managers, argue that advertising is simply incompatible with the mission of public broadcasting.
"I think people have to understand what it is that is going to be lost if we go in this direction," said Steven Bass, vice president and general manager of WGBY in Springfield, Mass.
He argued that it was wishful thinking to imagine that public stations could continue to disregard ratings if they were dependent on advertisers. In addition, he said, it is unlikely they will even make money if advertising is restricted to the time between shows.
"If you're going to go into the marketplace," he said, "you have to go into the marketplace prepared to compete."