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Blurbs blur line between PBS, nets

The line between pubcasters and commercial TV is getting thinner, with PBS and individual public TV stations welcoming sophisticated sponsor “messages” that often look and sound like ads appearing on the for-profit networks.

Last week, a Capitol Hill panel put pubcasters on notice that it will study the issue of underwriting to see if such spots cross the line.

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chair of the House Subcommittee on Telecom & the Internet, and Rep. W.J. “Billy” Tauzin (R-La.), who chairs the full House Commerce Committee, say they want to make sure underwriting sponsors don’t coopt the process.

It’s tricky territory, since Republicans could easily cite the money generated from underwriting messages as a reason to cut back on federal funding.

In 2001, corporate underwriting for PBS topped out at about $220 million, a $45 million increase from the previous year. Sponsorship money makes up about a third of PBS’ budget.

Republicans aren’t alone in their concern over the creeping commercialization of public TV — consumer advocates are just as worried.

“If it quacks like a duck, and walks like a duck, then it’s an ad,” says Center for Digital Democracy topper Jeffrey Chester.

Used to be that a sponsor of a PBS program would only have the company’s name mentioned. Now, a company also can buy a corresponding 15-second spot.

PBS touts sponsorship opportunities on its Web site, including the following:

“Learn how PBS sponsorship can help your corporate message stand out from the clutter of commercial advertising-and reach YOUR target audience!”

The site also provides examples of sponsor messages by Kellogg’s Rice Krispies, Bankers Trust, Mitsubishi Motors, Ace Hardware and Samsung, among others.

PBS says there is nothing inappropriate in its airing sponsor messages, and that it strictly abides by FCC rules governing underwriting.

The FCC relaxed its rules in the 1980s, so that pubcasters might massage a new source of revenue, without out-and-out accepting ads.

Regs say PBS and other pubcasters can’t actually “promote” a product by featuring price or inducements to buy. Also, locations can’t be mentioned.

Certainly, the rules restrict, but they leave plenty of room to play.

“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,” says PBS chief operating officer Wayne Godwin. “We try to be as thoughtful as we can be in maintaining our noncommercial and educational mission.”

A company that wants to sponsor a program nationally now can turn to the PBS Sponsorship Group (PBSSG), a recently established joint venture of PBS and four of the largest public TV stations in the country — WNET in Gotham, WETA in Washington, WGBH in Boston and WMPT Maryland Public Television.

“PBSSG offers easy, one-stop, responsive service, and an array of national sponsorship packages to meet your needs,” the PBS Internet site states.

And for companies wanting to direct-message to more than one local market, PBS offers up National Public Broadcasting (NPB), a one-stop source for multimarket, daypart and program-genre underwriting messages.

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