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March 28, 2005

PBS Goes Commercial

pbs.jpgThe New York Times reports today on the latest steps PBS has taken towards displaying regular advertising, including having sponsors speak on camera while displaying products.

Let's face it: public television has sunk so low that there's almost no difference between its sponsorship content and that of network television.

"We can solve our short-term or annual needs by loosening the reins on sponsorship content, but in the end we lose our soul," Willard D. Rowland, president of KBDI-TV in Denver, told the Times.

Here's today's New York Times article.


On Public TV, Not Quite an Ad But Pretty Close
by Nat Ives

Welcome back," says a man who appears to be the host of a public-television pledge drive. "This program was made possible by a grant from Chipotle Mexican Grill." Behind the host, more than a dozen volunteers tend telephones beneath a sign that reads "Pledge Drive."

But as the host talks, the ringing of unanswered phones drowns him out. The volunteers can't answer because they are all eating burritos.

The scene is not an actual pledge drive, but it will appear on public television starting next month. The 15-second commercial for Chipotle, a Mexican restaurant chain owned by McDonald's, will accompany "How to Cook Everything: Bittman Takes On America's Chefs," on some 150 public television stations across the country. The program features Mark Bittman, a cookbook author who writes a column for the Dining section of The New York Times, which is a sponsor of the program.

The Chipotle spot, spoofing public television pledge drives, neatly encapsulates a significant shift in public television: to raise money for noncommercial programming, producers and distributors increasingly allow their corporate underwriters to turn their credits into something resembling regular commercials. Since the mid-1990's, the underwriter announcements that precede and follow many public television programs (and usually conclude with the narrator thanking "viewers like you") have gradually adopted many trappings of regular advertising, despite appearing on "commercial-free" television.

In March 2004, the Public Broadcasting Service, a nonprofit membership organization of public television stations, loosened its guidelines on the content of the credits. The new rules opened the door for the first time to the possibility of sponsors speaking on camera and displaying a product. Brands and products like Chuck E. Cheese's, Intel, McDonald's, Microsoft and Lipton Noodle Soup have taken advantage of the new guidelines to create livelier sponsorship segments with traditional trappings, including jingles and corporate slogans.

But the Chipotle credit, by having an on-screen actor address the camera and showing people eating the product, pushes closer to traditional advertising than ever before. Another Chipotle ad shows a British newscast that is disrupted when a cameraman gets too involved in his burrito. A third parodies the introduction to "Masterpiece Theater," presenting an Alistair Cooke look-alike and a sign-language interpreter whose duties are hampered by, yes, the burrito she is eating.

Judy Barlow, vice president for business development at American Public Television in Boston, which distributes "How to Cook Everything," said that underwriter credits "have evolved" from the spartan, static slides of early public television.

"But you couldn't get a funder today with just that simple text credit," Ms. Barlow said. "They really require much more than that."

Many station managers argue that these new sponsorship arrangements are necessary. Federal funding for public television has grown each year since 2000, but not enough, managers say, to keep up with rising operating costs and the additional expense of converting to digital signals. And the states' support has been hampered by money woes.

But slicker, more commercial underwriter messages have already produced unintended consequences, according to some public television executives.

"The drawback is that we begin to look like commercial broadcasters, so what is the difference?" said Rodney L. Bates, general manager of Nebraska Educational Television, which received more than 40 percent of this year's funds from the state legislature. "It is harder to articulate those differences. In the case of someplace like Nebraska, where we're a state licensee, it makes it more difficult to go in and ask a state legislator for the budget."

Even some ad agency executives said the new underwriter spots are greasing an already slick slope toward commercialism. "You start here with a spoof of a membership drive," said Charles Rosen, managing partner at the agency Amalgamated in New York. "All of a sudden it looks possible that the pledge drive volunteers might have Coca-Cola cups in front of them on their desks."

Dan Fogarty, who oversees advertising at Chipotle, said that he was sorry if the spots offended anyone, but that the company's intent was pure.

"I'm all for the guidelines of noncommercial radio and television," Mr. Fogarty said. "Our goal is to just not bore people."

At the dawn of federally supported public television in 1967, the Federal Communications Commission set tight limits on underwriter credits. But the commission relaxed its policy in 1984 to allow company logos and "value-neutral" descriptions of products or services, as long as they do not actually promote the products or services.

"By 1993 or 1994, you began to see the evolution of 'enhanced underwriting,' " said Wayne Godwin, the chief operating officer at PBS. Still, he said, an enhanced credit was defined as much by what it could not do as by what it could. "It was not allowed to have a call to action. It had to be careful and cautious about the language; it could not use superlatives or comparative claims like 'we're the best in the country.' "

In 2003, PBS offered 30-second underwriter messages for the first time. Among the 13 advertisers that have paid enough to qualify - originally $2.5 million, but later $1.5 million - are Archer Daniels Midland, Allstate and Ernst & Young.

But the new ads sidle right up to the edges of guidelines governing the content of underwriter messages. Many employ images from advertisers' traditional campaigns, while some others include specially adapted marketing slogans. McDonald's is identified as a supporter of "Sesame Street" in credits that end with the company logo and its global ad theme, "I'm lovin' it."

The credits for Chuck E. Cheese's, a sponsor of five PBS Kids programs including "Arthur" and "Barney and Friends," show the company Web site and include a voiceover saying "PBS Kids - Where a kid can be a kid." The Chuck E. Cheese's corporate slogan is "Where a kid can be a kid."

The Chipotle spots had to toe some very fine lines. For example, the guidelines allow people in the spots to consume a product as long as they do not appear to enjoy it overtly. So the producer instructed the actors in its pledge drive spoof not to look too thrilled.

"There are people eating, but they are kind of in the background and just going about their business," said Charles L. Pinsky, president and executive producer at Frappé Inc. in New York, which produced "How to Cook Everything."

PBS says that its standards and practices rest on several principles, including the conviction that public television's "noncommercial status must be preserved." In addition to propping up public television's independence, that noncommercial status provides certain financial and other benefits to public television, PBS says.

So even as public broadcasting takes on an increasingly commercial look, many executives in the system are searching for more permanent solutions. Some hope to see a special tax levied on for-profit television companies that would provide a dedicated revenue stream to public television. Another idea envisions an endowment built on funds from Congress and other donors.

"We can solve our short-term or annual needs by loosening the reins on sponsorship content, but in the end we lose our soul," said Willard D. Rowland, president of KBDI-TV in Denver. "If we don't want the institution to be more commercial, then we have to find better guaranteed revenue sources for it."

Jonathan Schoenberg, creative director and partner at TDA Advertising and Design, which created the Chipotle spots, called them homages, but acknowledged that they reflect the awkward dilemma of public broadcasting today.

"This work is embracing what I love about PBS," he said. "At the same time, with my deep love of PBS, they're in kind of a funky place right now."

Posted by Gary Ruskin at March 28, 2005 06:54 AM


I have noticed a similar trend on NPR. How do they draw the line on advertising? Why is it more acceptable for the radio hosts to say the advertisement? I think it should be one extreme or the other - no advertisements at all (completely publicly funded) or a private station that relies on advertising revenue and can sell air time to whomever they wish to.

Posted by: Stuart Matthews at March 29, 2005 09:45 PM

As a parent and a dedicated PBS viewer I too am frustrated by seeing the McDonalds and Chuck E Cheese 'sponsorships' on otherwise high quality programming. However, complaining to PBS is not necessarily the best solution. Federal funding for public broadcasting has decreased in recent years and public stations have incredible competition from cable stations (has anyone seen Noggin??). So, if you're bothered by commercial sponsorship of PBS do two things before you write to your station--first, contact your representative about funding for public broadcasting and second--send in YOUR pledge to PBS!

Posted by: Brandi Janssen at March 30, 2005 02:53 PM

I've done those 2 things. Now what? With this Comcast deal, I don't know. What will the local PBS stations listen to? We can't withdraw our financial support, but if not, then how do we get them to pay attention to us? Some stations are having to pull their digital kids programming if they won't be a part of this Comcast thing! I'm open to all suggestions, really...

Posted by: nikki at March 31, 2005 06:04 PM

Thanks for posting about this. Just fyi, I've posted an editorial about it on my blog, Stay Free! Daily.

Posted by: carrie at April 1, 2005 11:13 AM

Unfortunately TV has become a babysitter for too many children. They are being exposed to way to much way to early. The children are being brainwashed by commericals etc. Luckily, there are a few responsible adults who do supervise their children and their TV habits. PBS has traditionally been a safe TV channel. Not all traditions are meant to be broken or changed. Lets keep PBS safe and free from commericals.

Posted by: Deby at April 4, 2005 04:20 PM

Do you know in most european countries it is illegal ( not just immoral ) to gear advertising to children? And the appalling "synergy" of movies like The Incredibles...and slapping their images on fast, and damaging food.

My kids watch dvds. Shame on PBS/NPR, better you go off the air honorably with your ethics in tact.

And congress? Sorry, more death payments to make and golf courses to subsidize.

Posted by: Malvene at April 8, 2005 08:50 AM

My complaint goes way beyond directing ads toward children, or PBS and NPR getting in on the act. I'm sick and tired of commercials, period! I'm so sick of them, I rarely watch TV. The utter frustration of paying a cable company handsomely and then being subjected to the constant bombardment of ads has become almost intolerable. If you channel surf, the chances of actually landing on a program rather than a commercial are very slim indeed. Why haven't we either rioted or taken up arms over this? Not only do we suffer through it on TV, we get it from all other media known to man: radio, billboards, magazines, internet, movies, clothing,and now even body parts! WAKE UP, PEOPLE! It's getting STUPID! If the media cannot get by without advertising money, for goodness sake, charge twice as much for each ad and show it half as often. Then, we could at least watch a swatch of a program that lasts longer that a nanosecond. Don't think the sponsors would pay it? I just bet they would! I can't be the only one who is enraged by this incessant pitching. How much is too much?

Posted by: K. Harris at June 17, 2005 12:21 PM

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