March 30th, 2001

Sesame Street Meets Madison Avenue

By Brooke Shelby Biggs
Mother Jones

From the PBS.org Web site:

"PBS KIDS programs are commercial-free and do not seek to sell anything
to young viewers except the fun and excitement of learning."

From the sponsorship.pbs.org Web site:

"’Teletubbies,’ the groundbreaking children’s series based on extensive
research with children, is available for sponsorship by your company. Teletubbies
has earned the unanimous support of parents, children, and industry leaders,
an audience that is right within your grasp!"

PBS now has advertising. They just don’t call it advertising; they call it
"underwriting" and "sponsorship." The result is something
even worse than the blatant commercialism of network television: it’s commercial
television masquerading as non-commercial television.

You probably think that PBS was forced into carrying quasi-advertising—like
the Volvo ads on NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and the ExxonMobil lovefest now synonymous
with "Masterpiece Theater"—because Congress, led by Newt Gingrich,
declared war on PBS in the mid-1990s and slashed its subsidy. And you may even
grudgingly accept a Juicy Juice spot between "Arthur" and "Sesame
Street"; you figure that without those sponsorship dollars, your kid’s
only programming option would be "Pokémon" with Hot Wheels
and Ho-Ho ads.

But that isn’t why PBS is no longer commercial-free. PBS has advertising because
it wants to play with the big boys, especially in the hot kids’ TV market, and
that costs money.

Tom Epstein, vice president of communication for PBS, says federal funds for
the network have actually been increasing in recent years. The expansion of
corporate underwriting, he says, is intended to help PBS attract more and flashier
shows in order to compete with commercial broadcast and cable channels.

"We’ve got to have the money to achieve the production values" of
the children’s programs on cable television networks such as Nickelodeon, he
says. "There’s much more competition than there was 30 years ago. And we
can’t keep showing kids the same old shows if we want to keep them watching."

A look at PBS’s Web site shows that the network is either in denial about just
how much of its soul is in hock, or that it is willing to mislead the public
about just how cozy it is getting with its sponsors, especially when it comes
to children’s programming. While the network’s "children’s programming
philosophy" includes an apparently strict policy of no advertising on children’s
shows, a close look reveals that "no advertising" actually turns out
to mean no corporate messages during kids’ programs, but plenty immediately
before and after.

There is ample opportunity for "sponsors" to buy time during PBS
KIDS programming, despite assurances to parents that kids are shielded from
PBS’s gradual sellout. On the network’s sponsorship site—which requires registration
and is not meant for the average viewers’ eyes (use the login "motherjones"
and the password "motherjones" to see for yourself)—the network
openly pitches placement on PBS KIDS shows with special attention to the ripe
market that is impressionable youth: "Preschoolers are the most frequent
viewers of public television among all age groups, averaging three-and-a-half
hours of PBS viewing every week."

And corporate America is buying. I was watching "Sesame Street" with
my 6-year-old nephew recently, and sure enough, the kids’ classic is still "brought
to you by the letter H and the number 5." But it is also "made possible
by" pharmaceutical giant and Viagra-maker Pfizer, which "brings parents
the letter Z, as in Zithromax." Zithromax, for the uninitiated, is a powerful
antibiotic sometimes prescribed for children’s ear infections. Note how the
company is careful to say the message is aimed at parents, and not the kids.
(The spot features children and a zebra frolicking, and a giant colorful tumbling
wooden block with the letter "Z" on its side—parents love playing
with blocks.)

The careful wording is no accident. The Federal Communications Commission and
PBS limit the kind of messages that can be broadcast on "non-commercial"
public television. "Donor acknowledgements" may identify companies
and brands, but not promote them or make comparative statements about them.
PBS further limits messages during children’s programs, Epstein says, restricting
their length to 15 seconds, requiring each to contain a message of "support
for kids and education" and prohibiting mascots, "spokescharacters,"
or pictures of products that may cause kids to ask their parents to buy for
them.

But as Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting pointed out last year, the rules
have some mighty big loopholes. The Zithromax spot is a good example: the zebra
in the Zithromax spot is a real zebra, and not "Max," Pfizer’s Zithromax
mascot. Will kids know the difference or care? And Libby’s is pleased with its
product placement on "Arthur," as it says on the PBS sponsorship pages:
"Libby’s Juicy Juice 100% juice takes great pride in its reputation for
providing quality juice that kids love and parents trust. What better way, then,
for Juicy Juice to reach millions of parents and children and reinforce the
brand’s quality than to sponsor PBS’s most popular children’s program, Arthur?"

PBS and the Children’s Television Workshop even participated in a marketing
conference in New York last year called "Play-Time, Snack-Time, Tot-Time:
Targeting Preschoolers and Their Parents." In a letter of protest, Ralph
Nader and Commercial Alert wrote: "If the Children’s Television Workshop
actually believes its own ‘commitment to the betterment of children,’ it cannot
possibly assist corporate advertisers in their efforts to get children to nag
their parents, sow intra-family strife, or sell junk food to American children
who already suffer skyrocketing levels of childhood obesity, etc."

Does PBS get complaints from parents? "Rarely," says Epstein. "Not
from real people. Mostly from FAIR, and from others when FAIR sends out one
of its messages about us."

 

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  1. Posted by fs0uOfG51l on March 22nd, 2006

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