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This Bell Isn't Ringing

News: Analysis & Commentary: Television


Bell Atlantic Corp. has never shown much interest in WHYY, Philadelphia's public television station. Although based across town, the phone company doesn't give the station money nor spend much to back its programming. So now Bell Atlantic wants to take public TV off the government's hands? That, says WHYY head Frederick Breitenfeld Jr., is "a pretty far-fetched notion."

Yet Bell Atlantic has become the corporate poster boy in Washington's heated debate over privatization of public broadcasting. On Jan. 22, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) after meeting with CEO Raymond Smith and other BA execs, casually let drop on CBS News' Face the Nation that Bell Atlantic, among others, might want to buy public stations or programming.

Not exactly, says Bell Atlantic. It hasn't explored the idea, doesn't have any concrete plans, and isn't mulling any offers, spokesmen say. The company has been unwilling to sponsor a series for $5 million, a fraction of the $300 million that Washington spends yearly to subsidize public TV. "Clearly this story is running way ahead of reality," says a spokesman.

QUID PRO QUO. This may simply be a trial balloon that popped. Some phone company watchers say Pressler wanted to attach a big-company name to his idea, and Bell Atlantic allowed its name to be dropped because it will need support when Congress crafts telecommunications laws in coming months. Bell Atlantic denies any such quid pro quo.

Certainly, the phone giant needs TV programming such as Barney & Friends, starring Barney, public TV's purple dinosaur, to fuel both its nascent cable system in New Jersey and the interactive video service it plans to offer by 2000. But owning stations would compete with its own cable delivery system. And few of the nation's 350 public-TV stations, in any case, likely would want to be acquired. Going commercial "would in effect destroy this industry," frets Arthur Albrecht, general manager of WVPT in Harrisonburg, Va. Ervin S. Dugan, CEO of the Public Broadcasting Service, thunders that privatization could "kill the enterprise."

For all the bombast, there is one near-certainty: Public TV likely will lose some funding. And while many in Washington see privatization as unlikely, Pressler's tactics have drawn one interested party, Jones Intercable Inc. in Colorado. Barney may yet find a home in the private sector.By Joseph Weber in Philadelphia, with bureau reports

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