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PBS vows to stay the higher road course

They're probably the only television executives on earth who quote Disraeli, Churchill and a stray 19th-century philosopher or two. When they honor each other, they give antique photographs and presents from Tiffany's.

And in this city of laissez les bons temps rouler _ let the good times roll _ they are hard at work on a weekend, attending seminar after seminar on how to improve their art, shunning the lure of the French Quarter and the seduction of jazz.

They are also the only television executives around who define themselves first, foremost and forever as public servants.

The 1,200 programers, station managers and producers attending the 1993 Public Television annual meeting take their mission of commercial-free television seriously.

The technology may be different than when public television was created in 1953, but the mission remains the same.

"Our significance and success cannot always _ if ever _ be measured by Nielsens or Arbitrons," said outgoing Public Broadcasting chairman Ted Capener. "But instead is seen in a child's eyes and in his or her spirit when they learn a new word or a new idea."

Among the highest priorities of public television is education, for children and adults. By stressing information, education and dedication to diversity and a multicultural society, public television will secure its place in a new 500-channel television future. Programs for the blind and deaf already are in place. The constant reminder that the world includes many people and many cultures is a guiding policy.

"Our place in today's mishmash of television offerings is more important than ever," Capener said Saturday. "In a world impacted by Geraldos, Phils and Rush, let us continue to be the voice of reason, dependability and truth."

"And," Capener added, taking a shot at those who charge PBS is dull, "we can do that without being boring."

Anybody who's ever seen Reading Rainbow, Great Performances or Mystery! knows public television isn't boring.

Actor Edward James Olmos, an ardent supporter of PBS, zoomed in to one meeting to urge those who toil in the underfunded fields of public TV not to give up. "Do it with all the love you have," said Olmos, who is working on a PBS film and a show about adults seeking high school equivalency diplomas. "Do it for the love of your children and the children of this planet."

"Public television is the only consistent programing with human values," Olmos said.

That's heavy stuff sounds like a calling. Which new PBS chairman Gerald L. Baliles says it is. "Television may no longer be a young invention," said Baliles, former governor of Virginia. "But we in public television are still called to a greater purpose."

For the next three days, programers here will learn new ways to communicate, using interactive television and innovative programs _ ever working on the "greater purpose" while "the Big Easy" swirls around them. They will work at a convention that resembles a college classroom more than a beer-bash-promotion-sappy affiliates meeting. No glitter, but the occasional wry joke.

That's okay. Let them speak in words with 16 syllables and quote guys who are long dead; the mission of PBS is vibrant, alive and _ Capener is right _ not one bit boring.