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TV Networks Join Forces To Combat Adult Illiteracy

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Washington--Two major broadcasting networks announced last week that they would begin working together on a multimillion-dollar national campaign to combat adult illiteracy.

Project Literacy U.S. (plus), a cooperative effort between the American Broadcasting Companies and the Public Broadcasting Service, will combine community action with television programming in a major attempt to raise literacy levels across the nation.

Officials of the networks said the project marked the first such joint public-service effort undertaken by leaders in the broadcasting industry. They said carrying out their extensive plans would involve a commitment of millions. PBS officials said their initial cost would be $1.5 million; ABC officials declined to estimate their total contribution.

At a press conference introducing plus, Secretary of Education William J. Bennett called the ABC/PBS alliance a "powerful partnership" to end illiteracy. But he blamed television for contributing to reading deficiency in the country.

"Television can be a diversion to reading," said Mr. Bennett. Although the average child watches 12 hours of television a week, he added, reading proficiency has been found to be higher in students who watch fewer than six hours per week.

James E. Duffy, president of communications for ABC, appeared irked by Mr. Bennett's comments, according to one of the Secretary's aides. Mr. Duffy responded to Mr. Bennett's statement by saying there is no evidence of a negative correlation between watching television and reading.

The president of PBS, Bruce L. Christensen, said this is not the time for "finger-pointing" but for pooling resources to attempt to solve the problem.

An aide to Secretary Bennett said ABC had been given an advance copy of the Secretary's remarks and had asked that the anti-television language be dropped, but Mr. Bennett declined to do so.

After the press conference, Mr. Bennett said, "If they were really serious about this, they would put an hour [of literacy programming] on prime time every week, not at 2 A.M., not at 5 A.M."

The PLUS Program

The networks' plus plan, which includes prime-time programming, is a two-phase operation involving "outreach and awareness," explained Mr. Duffy. From now until the summer of 1986, PBS and ABC will work with local service organizations to establish a network of volunteer task forces that will utilize tutoring and other means to teach adults to read.

In the second phase, from September 1986 to June 1987, the networks will schedule programming that encourages literacy. Mr. Duffy and Mr. Christensen said ABC and PBS will use every available television and radio avenue to make Americans aware of the problem of illiteracy.

"We are not content to alert viewers to the problem; we want them to know where to go to do something about it," said Lloyd Kaiser, president of wqed-Pittsburgh, the local station spearheading plus programming. It will be crucial to the initiative, he added, to get the volunteer efforts in place before demand increases as a result of the public-information campaign.

Mr. Duffy said the on-air component will be launched in September with an ABC News documentary on the illiteracy problem. That will immediately be followed by a PBS documentary examining successful methods for teaching adults to read.

Other programs being planned by the networks include ABC News shows and afternoon specials, and PBS affiliate-produced shows, including a series produced by the Kentucky and Arkansas public-broadcasting systems to promote registration for high-school-equivalency programs leading to the General Educational Development (ged) examination.

Both networks will also sponsor public-service announcements on illiteracy for both radio and television stations.

In addition to covering the literacy issue in news programming and public-service announcements, Mr. Duffy said ABC's entertainment division had been asked to provide thematic treatment of literacy in its programming as well.

23 Million With Problems

Daniel J. Boorstin, head of the Library of Congress, said there are at least 23 million adult Americans whose reading, writing, and comprehension skills are below the 4th-grade level. He said many millions more are semi-literate, and there are other adults who can read but choose not to "enrich their lives with books."

"Inability to read is at the core of just about every educational problem in our country," said President Reagan in a statement read by Mr. Bennett. "Researchers have even found a link between reading disorders and delinquency, and that's no surprise when you consider that more than half our prison population can't read or write."

Others attending the press conference to express their support were Barbara Bush, wife of the Vice President and a leading literacy advocate, and Senator Paul Simon, Democrat of Illinois.

Project directors of plus are Margot Woodwell, vice president of wqed in Pittsburgh, and John E. Harr, vice president of ABC's office of communications in New York.

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