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You probably missed it, but near the end of Channel 17's March pledge drive, the station aired the pitch that House Speaker Newt Gingrich made for PBS.

It aired after the "McLaughlin Group," which attracts conservative viewers who embrace Gingrich.

"I didn't want it said that we didn't use it and take advantage of it," said Channel 17 President J. Michael Collins. "I thought it deserved a test." And what happened?

"We took about 13 pledges," said Collins. "That's terrible."

The speaker's threat to "zero out" funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has sparked pledge increases nationally during the March fund drive. Collins said local public broadcasting earned just under $1 million this March, about the same as last year. "We've had a lot more memberships (23 percent increase) but lower pledges."

CPB gives Channel 17 about 11 percent of its budget. It is scheduled to lose $250,000 this July.

Last week, I questioned Collins about several issues connected to PBS and the debate.

On the Air: What is the biggest misconception?

Collins: That "Barney" and "Sesame Street" have raked in $1 billion a year in sales.

Collins said that after the store owner who sells the material, the manufacturer, the copyright holder and producer get their share, PBS gets about $2 million from each program and "Barney" for free. The $1 billion is really $4 million.

OTA: Why does a PBS station like yours run movies like "Smokey and the Bandit"?

C: We're not going to be in the regular film series business anymore by next September. We can't find enough film product that meets our requirements.

OTA: How many members do you have, and what is the Canadian-American split?

C: We have about 36,000 Canadian families and 24,000 American families.

OTA: That seems low. How does it compare nationally?

C: We're better than the national average.

OTA: Do those figures contradict surveys that find the public actually wants aid to public broadcasting increased?

C: What they have said is we prefer to use our tax dollars for that. It is only $1.09 per United States citizen.

OTA: Why do we need Channel 23 and how much does it cost a year to run?

C: It costs about $200,000 to run, or 3 percent of what it costs to run Channel 17. It's like a library putting an addition on so it can carry more books.

OTA: If you eventually lose federal funding, what's so wrong about using four minutes of commercials an hour?

C: It is a great area to explore. And a very valid area to explore. Our audience is by and large telling us they don't want programs interrupted by commercials. They might be willing to accept commercials between programs. I don't think they would accept commercials around children's programs. . . . Laws have to be changed and there has to be a willingness on the part of Congress to save public broadcasting, and I'm not sure that willingness is there.

OTA: Why not?

C: I have the sense that there are some in Congress who feel that public broadcasting -- NPR and PBS -- present thoughts that are thoughts of change, that are more liberal than conservative, that do not agree with some of the points of view of some of the people who are elected to lead, and I think they have a major problem with that. They've said it is a budget problem. I don't think you solve a budget deficit problem of $200 billion a year by cutting a $300 million item.

OTA: I know you desperately needed a new building. But hindsight being 2 0/2 0, do you regret building it because it has become a symbol in this cost-cutting time?

C: Does it leave us open to misunderstanding? Yes. If hindsight were foresight, would the board have proceeded in the same way? They might not have. But remember, most of the money put up for this building was put up exclusively for this building. They might have said a reasonable course might have been, "Can we patch and make do for a couple of more years until we see how we're going to make out?" But they also might have said, "It doesn't make sense to throw any money in the old buildings that you have."

OTA: Even if Mr. Gingrich drops the zeroing out idea, don't you think he'll be a winner anyway because PBS will be reluctant to carry any programs that would upset conservatives like him?

C: I'm not sure he will. I think any time you have government funding, you lay yourself open to the possibility there is going to be pressure from the government about what you do and what you don't do in public affairs. It is the whole chilling effect. . . . I'm sure in the future, any editorial decision that PBS makes is going to be looked at much more closely and there are going to be people who say -- even if it is not true -- "Oh, you backed off on this one" because of . . . Who knows.

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