April 30th, 2007

Nonprofit TV in Big Ad Venture

By Jesse Noyes
Boston Herald

“The Velveteen Rabbit.”

The Berenstain Bears.

“Goodnight Moon”

The media buyer.

The adventures of the modern media buyer aren’t usually the stuff of standard children’s book lore.

But in an effort to woo sponsorship dollars for its children’s programming, Boston-based public broadcaster WGBH has created a story book about a media buyer convincing a client to spend ad dollars on shows likes “Arthur” and “Clifford the Big Red Dog.”

The book, titled “The Happy Client,” was sent to over 1,000 industry contacts. WGBH called it a creative way to keep PBS Kids shows top of mind among media buyers.

But at least one activist group said it’s a sign of PBS diving further into a corporate-driven culture.

Illustrated and written like a children’s book, “The Happy Client” follows a media buyer as she pitches a corporate client on sponsoring PBS programming. Along the way, the media buyer talks about how PBS kids can promise strong ratings, in-store promotions with characters from the shows, brand logos on educational materials and a presence on billboards.

“Suddenly, the not-so-happy client was very happy,” it says at the end of the book. “And the client and the media buyer both lived happily ever after.”

Marcia Hertz, managing director of marketing and client services at WGBH’s national sponsorship department said, “A lot of media dollars are being spent right now, and our goal was to find a creative way to get the attention of media buyers.”

PBS stations have to work with smaller marketing budgets than their commercial counterparts, she said. And, she said, WGBH doesn’t make the same kind of presentations other media outlets do in New York to try to sell commercial time to advertisers.

“The concept of the book was born out of the need to attract sponsorship dollars to support PBS’ children’s programming,” Hertz added.

But Robert Weissman, managing director of the Washington, D.C., activist group Commercial Alert, said the book is a sign of PBS’ mission eroding. “It sounds like this product is a further weakening of its noncommercial status,” he said.

The charge has been leveled against PBS before. Stations like WGBH have been stepping up their efforts to attract corporate sponsors, while simultaneously clinging to their noncommercial identity. Weissman said PBS stations should be spending more time and money trying to increase government funding and soliciting public contributions.

But PBS says corporate sponsorships are needed to keep its programming on the air.

Currently, sponsorship spots for “Curious George” and “Arthur” are open, Hertz said. But there are strict guidelines prohibiting sponsors from showing their products on PBS children’s shows or publicity materials, she added.

“The Happy Client,” which is actually a sequel to a children’s-style book WGBH sent out last year, is simply one small way for the station to compete with its big commercial counterparts, Hertz said. 

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