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WASHINGTON-With their federal funding in jeopardy, some public TV stations say they'd like to be free to pursue the big money ads can bring.

And those stations say that scenario would add up to more cash from advertising than they get from the government.

More than a dozen stations in markets such as Chicago, Houston, Miami, St. Louis and Philadelphia have been urging Congress to ease rules on corporate underwriting to make up for the threatened loss of federal funds.

They've caught the attention of Reps. Jack Fields (R., Texas) and John Porter (R., Ill.), who support limited ads during non-children's programming.

However many smaller and rural stations don't have the demographics to rely on ads for support, though they depend the most on federal funds.

Some state- and university-owned stations also resist advertising because they are unfamiliar with the concept.

Advertising "does not work universally across the board," said Henry Cauthen, chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. "Stations in the major cities have a better chance, but .*.*. it will drag them toward commercialism."

The House last month approved a 15% cut in federal funds for 1996 and a 30% reduction for '97.

Reps. Fields and Porter, who control the committee purse strings for CPB, want to wean stations off federal funds altogether. Public broadcasting officials have met with the lawmakers to discuss alternative funding.

Many stations are eager to discuss the options in order to get off the roller coaster of the appropriations process.

"I'd love to transition away from federal funds and pay better attention to the delivery of quality programming," said Jeff Clarke, general manager, KUHT, Houston.

One plan being discussed in Congress would allow stations to air up to 3 minutes of ads an hour between prime-time programs, at least during a transition period.

With prime-time ads, rep firms estimate stations such as KUHT and Chicago's WTTW would bring in more revenue than they currently get from the government.

KUHT, for instance, received $860,000 in federal funds last year, 10.7% of the station's overall budget.

A New York rep firm that asked not to be named estimates KUHT could bring in a net of $2 million and gross revenues of $3 million just by airing prime-time ads between programs.

Mr. Clarke estimates that with ads he could double or triple the amount the station receives from the government.

WTTW received about $2 million last year from the government, only 5% of the station's budget, said General Manager Bill McCarter, a leading proponent of public TV ads. One rep firm estimates that with 3 minutes of ads an hour in prime time, WTTW could net $3.4 million a year and gross at least $5.4 million.

Even stations that support ads, however, are aware that not everyone is in the same boat.

Mr. Clarke says that a CPB task force is examining ways to alter the formula by which federal funds are distributed.

If funds are cut and the law is changed, the remaining funds may go to stations that need them the most. Large stations may also eventually take over certain functions of smaller stations, essentially turning the smaller stations into satellites.

While some predict that small stations will fight that idea, David Dial, former national coordinator of the Small Station Alliance, takes a philosophical stance.

"If there's a choice between being there as a network station or not being there at all, what's best? The service will remain, that's what's important," he said.M

Ms. Hontz is a reporter for Electronic Media.

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