PBS’ blurred blurbs

Ad-free network under fire for sponsor spots

WASHINGTON — An ad is an ad is an ad — even if Elmo has trouble spelling advertisement. Or is it?

Take a spot for Subaru airing Sunday evening on the popular character’s home net — PBS. More and more, viewers tuning in to noncommercial public TV are wondering if they switched to the wrong channel, confronted with sponsor “messages” that look an awful lot like ads.

This morning, a Capitol Hill committee is expected to quiz PBS prexy-CEO Pat Mitchell and Assn. of Local Public TV Stations prexy-CEO John Lawson on the issue, among other matters.

“Some are concerned that corporate underwriting has exceeded the limits laid out by the Federal Communications Commission,” a congressional staffer said.

PBS is adamant that it’s well within the bounds set by the FCC and that it goes even further than the reg agency in dictating what’s OK. For one, the plug can’t be longer than 15 seconds.

And, according to FCC rules, no price can be included, or price comparisons. Nor can there be inducements to buy. There can be no jingles or logos that promote a product, and no location information. Finally, the reg agency asks public broadcasters to exercise their best judgment.

Stretching definition

Still, underwriters of PBS programming have plenty of room to play, particularly in a marketing age dominated by subtle imagery. There might not be that much variance between an ad developed for a commercial net and a spot developed for public TV.

On its Web site, PBS even encourages sponsors to borrow images from existing ad campaigns.

“I don’t in the least bit deny that the care, skill and polish that is now reflected in underwriting credits might make PBS look more commercial than it did 10 or 15 years ago,” PBS chief operating officer Wayne Godwin said. “We try to be as thoughtful as we can be in maintaining our noncommercial and educational mission.”

Consumer advocates have long complained about the creeping commercialization of public broadcasting and the proliferation of sponsor spots.

Muddied picture

Center for Digital Democracy prexy Jeffrey Chester said the FCC shoulders much of the blame by allowing PBS and public stations to carry plugs in the first place.

“It’s dishonest to say they are not ads,” Chester said. “But even if it walks like an ad and quacks like an ad, the FCC says it’s not an ad.”

Godwin said each and every underwriter credit, allowed before and after a PBS program, is reviewed for content and pitch. “We look at everything. We stand accountable for each and every spot.”

In addition to national spots attached to PBS programs, public TV stations often carry local spots.

Corporate underwriting makes up about a third of PBS’ budget. Federal funds and contributions of individual viewers comprise the rest.

Chester and other consumer advocates said they were concerned to learn of the tone of sponsorship info posted on PBS’ Internet site. The idea behind public TV was that it didn’t have to worry about competing with commercial nets. Yet, PBS sounds like a competitor.

“Learn how PBS Sponsorship can help your corporate message stand out from the clutter of commercial advertising — and reach your target audience!” the site states.

Commercial conduct

PBS also offers tips to sponsors about how to fashion a message, as well as listing several examples of underwriting credits. They include:

  • A recent Mitsubishi spot showed clips of the Gallant, with the following script: “This program was brought to you by Mitsubishi. The all-new Gallant, proof that sedans and pulses can harmoniously exist.”

  • “Of all the things you can get at Ace, perhaps the best is piece of mind. Ace is the place. From the helpful hardware folks,” intoned a recent spot for underwriter Ace Hardware.

  • Barnes & Noble recently plugged its Web site with “Anywhere … Any time … Any book … BarnesAndNoble.com, where the world shops for books.”

The Consumers Union said it is time for Congress to step in and write “stiff rules preventing these kinds of commercial promotions.”

Digital blurbs

Any hint of advertising on public TV has long been a hot topic in Washington. Last fall, the FCC raised eyebrows when voting to allow public TV stations to carry ads on extra digital channels. Once the transition to digital is complete, broadcasters will have their primary signal as well as up to six ancillary channels.

In 1998, then-FCC commissioner Michael Powell — now topper of the agency — extolled the virtues of public TV during a speech.

“It is not constrained to produce mass audience fare, because it does not need to deliver eyeballs to the cereal, soap and soft-drink companies to achieve its mission,” Powell said. “It is free, then, to pursue dramatic, cutting-edge programs that may not attract a mass audience, but does stimulate the minds of those willing to tune in. This is why public broadcasting is a national treasure.”

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