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PBS Under Threat From Competition

Watching the network's ratings plunge to its lowest levels ever, Public Broadcasting Service executives are privately raising concerns that their future may be in jeopardy, a situation that the government-funded television network's critics don't mind.

Alarm bells first rang in February when PBS President Pat Mitchell told local affiliates: "We are dangerously close in our overall primetime number to falling below the relevance quotient. And if that happens, we will surely fall below any arguable need for government support, not to mention corporate or individual support."

Publicly, PBS officials acknowledge that the network's ratings have dropped, but they play down the seriousness of Mitchell’s warning, saying she was just trying to fire the team up.

"It looks more dire than her intentions," said John Wilson, vice president of programming. "That's not her view and it's not the view of the entire speech she gave. She was just trying to grab [the affiliates] by the lapels and say look, 'we have to keep our eye on the ball.'"

But critics say that PBS has compromised its mission over the last 30 years, squandering taxpayer dollars with little thought to viewer accountability and becoming slaves to corporate underwriters and political correctness. And while some charge that PBS needs to take a bold stand by becoming more financially independent, others say it is just plain unnecessary today.

"PBS is no longer unique," said Richard Noyes, an analyst for the Center for Media Research Center in Washington, D.C.

Indeed, for every Julia Child culinary tutorial, there is an Emeril Live or Nigella Bites confectionary drama on The Food Network or the Style Network. For every documentary on jazz or prehistoric beasts, there is another on The History and Discovery channels.

And that's what opponents are counting on.

"Overall, PBS is self-destructing quite nicely," said Laurence Jarvik, author of PBS: Behind the Screen, who worked unsuccessfully with Republicans in the 1990s to de-fund public broadcasting. "The good thing is with cable, the Internet and satellite, you have alternatives, gradually fewer and fewer people will watch [PBS]. The franchise will become increasingly less valuable."

Longtime supporters of public television, funded through the 31-year-old Corporation for Public Broadcasting, admit that PBS is too dependent on government and corporate funding, and that the dependence is reflected in the quality of its programming.

"There is a lack of courage in dealing with controversial subjects that might offend any powerful group in America, which we obviously refer to as the establishment or anyone who in the future might become a major corporate contributor," said Nicholas Johnson, a University of Iowa law professor who served on the Federal Communications Commission during the years that the Public Broadcasting Service was formed more than 30 years ago.

That wasn't a problem at PBS' inception in 1969. At the time CPB was granted $5 million to fill the void left by the three major television networks. In 2004, the government will pay $380 million for PBS, and the president has requested $395 million for 2005, according to a Senate Appropriations Committee spokesperson.

But government funding accounts for less than 11 percent of the pie, according to the CPB annual report for 2001. It gets 45 percent from member stations through dues paid through fundraisers, 20 percent from royalties, investments and licensing fees, and 17 percent from educational products sales.

"The fact of the matter is, we and our member stations are very much dependent on the voluntary support of our viewers," said Wilson, adding that December's and March's pledge drives were the largest ever.

In an effort to stay viable, PBS is attempting to branch out by sponsoring shows like Frontier Family, which documented the lives of three real families who agreed to spend a summer living on the prairie — a sort of educational Survivor. Similarly themed shows are on the way.

PBS is also trying to reach younger viewers by obtaining the rights to Fox's American High and the failed CBS drama American Family. Wilson said PBS hopes to offer multi-programming options when it completes its $1.8 million conversion to digital transmission in the near future.

But aside from mainstays like Sesame Street, the new Now With Bill Moyers and a handful of critically acclaimed series, critics just don't believe that taxpayers and corporate partners are getting what they pay for. That's reflected in the ratings, whether PBS likes it or not.

"If it were taken off the air, I think people would be upset for a few days and then they would pick themselves up and their lives would go on," Noyes said.