Public television stations and producers are balking at plans by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) to demand joint ownership of copyrights on programs for which CPB provides major funding.
The proposal is seen by some in public broadcasting as a means for CPB to exert more control over program content, especially on potentially controversial public affairs shows. CPB is also said to be interested in sharing revenues from such programming when it moves into ancillary markets, such as the burgeoning home video industry and sales to foreign countries.
"This is potentially an enormous, volatile issue," one highly placed public broadcasting source said yesterday. Some independent producers are refusing to sign contracts until the matter is settled, the source said. Others expressed concern that the move to share in copyrights is part of a general push by CPB to assume a greater role in programming.
CPB was set up as a nonprofit corporation by the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 for the purpose of channeling federal funds to public broadcasting. It does not produce programs.
Most CPB officials were in Minneapolis for a board meeting yesterday and could not be reached. However, Eleanor Miller, acting director of communications for CPB, insisted that the copyright proposal applied only to programs produced by the Annenberg-CPB Project, a 5-year-old consortium that makes mainly college credit courses for TV.
Told that many within the system say CPB means to extend the copyright provision to other programming it funds, Miller said from Chicago: "They are mistaken. They're uptight. One can't blame them for being uptight, but they are totally wrong."
And yet public broadcasting officials said CPB has been trying to move into this area for some time. Ward Chamberlin, president of WETA, said yesterday that the new philosophy at CPB "is now moving into their regular grant making, separate from Annenberg" and added, "It's the general approach that gives us some concern."
Chamberlin said contracts with producers have been held up while the copyright matter is in negotiation. Formerly, said Chamberlin, when CPB gave funds for a program, "we've always thought they were grants, and what they got in return was a good program on public TV. Now there's a school at CPB that believes they're going to exert more contract rights in the matter. Whenever they put up money, they want other rights back."
Suzanne Weil, program director for the Public Broadcasting Service, said she understood CPB to be interested in copyrights for all programs it funds, and said she found the proposal a "disturbing" one. "I think producers have the right to hold copyrights and that no funder is appropriate to own the copyright," Weil said from Minneapolis.
Frederick Wiseman, the acclaimed independent filmmaker whose past productions were sometimes funded in part by CPB, said from Boston that he had only heard of the proposal as a rumor but that he would oppose it.
"It's dangerous because it would give them further editorial control," Wiseman said. "They would feel they had a right to make editorial judgments -- like shorten the film, lengthen the film, delete certain sequences. It threatens the whole notion of the filmmaker as independent from the funding source."
"We haven't had any problems with editorial control so far," Chamberlin said. "I'm not too worried about that."
William McCarter, president of public TV station WTTW in Chicago, said he was opposed to the proposal but that it seemed a minor detail in the midst of public television's widespread funding crisis.
"I think it's a bad idea," McCarter said. "But you have to consider that the tradition that CPB has built is falling underneath the wheels of the new reality -- I should say, the tank tracks of the new reality. It's a juggernaut out here now and it's getting very difficult. Whether we like it or not, there's a diminution of this enterprise and its programming right now that is relentless."
Public TV is beset by financial calamities, McCarter noted. Recently, WNET in New York announced drastic budgetary cutbacks and a realignment of priorities away from national programming and back toward local programming. Exxon Corp., long a generous public TV funder, recently announced plans to cut back on its grants, and it is feared within the system that other corporate donors will soon follow suit.
Gary Knell, WNET vice president and general counsel, said, "My reaction is basically one in which we oppose that position by CPB," partly because "by CPB holding a copyright on a program, it would give them the same rights that a producer has, the right to develop and produce derivative works -- anything from a sequel to a series to ancillary products. That's something that the producers should own."
Trustman Senger contributed to this story.