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Public TV profit ploy

In an eyebrow-raising partnership, several public TV stations have agreed to market a private online service in classrooms. The goal is for students to go home and ask their parents to pony up $9.95 a month to subscribe to the service, called JuniorNet, a company official says.

The deal angers some public-TV activists. "In effect, JuniorNet is buying public-broadcasting airtime. This is not cricket," says Peggy Charren, founder of Action for Children's Television and a visiting scholar at Harvard University's School of Education.

The stations involved in the deal are aware of the apparent conflict of "doing a noncommercial venture with a for-profit company," says Rod Bates, general manager of the participating nine-station Nebraska Education Telecommunications. However, with public dollars declining every year, "we have to look for innovative new ways to increase programs and services as we move into a multicasting world."

The other partners in the limited-liability corporation that was formed to do the deal are six-station Maryland Public Broadcasting Foundation Inc. and seven-station South Carolina Educational Communications Inc.

Under the agreement, which was announced June 27, the stations will pipe the online service and a to-be-developed JuniorNet-based TV show into classrooms along with the educational fare that they already offer. The show, to debut early next year, will be provided free to the stations and the schools. In return, the stations get a stake in JuniorNet that depends on how many people in their markets agree to subscribe.

Boston-based JuniorNet is hoping that kids who are exposed to the service at school will want to buy it at home, says Cecily Truett, president of JuniorNet subsidiary Lancit Media Entertainment Ltd., which will develop the TV show. Or they might have to, if they have Internet access at home: She cites a scenario in which a teacher assigns homework that requires the use of JuniorNet. (Lancit produces Reading Rainbow, which is the most-used show in the nation's schools. JuniorNet is controlled by overbuilder RCN Corp.)

Commercial-free JuniorNet does not allow access to the Internet. The system comprises a CD-ROM updated every six months and a private online connection updated daily.

As for those who might look askance at the public-private partnership, "we are not concerned about people who criticize that," Truett says. With public stations needy for funds, "you can't have it both ways."

In efforts to fund conversion to digital, "this partnership highlights the tightrope that a lot of [public broadcasters] are walking right now," says Tony Wilhelm, program director of the communications policy program at the Benton Foundation, a private, nonpartisan public-interest group based in Washington. But "the ultimate goal [of this deal] is to have parents pay for this service. That is not the goal that I would want to send as a public entity."

Tom Epstein, a spokesman for PBS, which provides programming to the nation's public TV stations, declined to take a position. "We're a membership organization, and stations are at liberty to make decisions for their own stations."

The partners hope that the venture will go nationwide by the end of the year. More shows are expected to stem from the deal.

In other recent public-TV news, Hasbro Inc.'s Playskool brand has signed on as an underwriter for PBS' first Saturday-morning kids' block.

In return for its undisclosed investment, Hasbro gets six 15-second "underwriting spots" during the three-hour block, slated to start this fall.