August 24th, 2006

PBS to Resume Online Ads to Exploit Market Demand

By Dinesh Kumar
Communications Daily

PBS.org this fall will resume online ads, seeking to tap “explosive growth and rising demand” in Internet advertising, said Tom Tardivo, vp-strategic asset management. The move is a response to market forces and demand for “sponsorship” on PBS.org, he told us. A brief PBS stab at ads on its site died with the dot.com bust. In a push to generate online revenue, PBS contracted NPB Interactive, the newly formed on- line sales arm of National Public Bcstg., to sell ads for PBS.org.

PBS sees “real opportunity” in opening its site to ads that would drive “positive financial results” for public TV, “while continuing to support PBS’s mission-based activities,” Tardivo said. Though not barred by law from accepting ads online, public broadcasters have found ads a sensitive issue. In recent remarks, PBS Pres. Paula Kerger warned colleagues against going too far with Internet ads because “we become like commercial television.” Public TV must heed the “level, volume and content” of online ads, Kerger said.

PBS “plans to approach online sponsorship in a prudent way, staying true to our mission,” said Tardivo. It will use internal guidelines blending broadcast underwriting rules and those for comparable websites, he added. That means content barred from broadcasts, such as gambling, alcohol and weapons, would be excluded online, he said. PBS will extend broadcast sponsor guidelines’ “spirit” to web ads, so there will be “editorial separation and exclusion of inappropriate message content,” he said. PBS is studying user perceptions about ads on PBS.org, he said: “The guidelines will continue to evolve based on the results of our user research.”

PBS proposes to solicit ads for its children’s sites, a move likely to draw flak from stations and activists. “A half banner will appear on PBSkids.org and PBSkids Go! home pages only,” said Tardivo: “Banners will not appear on Kids program sites.” Asked if corporations like McDonalds will be excluded from kids’ sites, he said “exclusions in the kids space will mirror our broadcast guidelines, and all advertisers and messages will be reviewed and approved by PBS before they appear on PBS.org and PBSKids.org.”

Some PBS stations licensed to state entities expect problems linking to PBS.org if it turns commercial. Peter Morrill, gen. mgr. of the Ida. Public TV network, said that state has a policy, common at most state-licensed stations, suggesting “linking to commercial sites is inappropriate.” So networks like his will be “monitoring very closely” as PBS reviews options, he said.

The “whole notion of commercializing the kids service” is a concern, said Steve Bass, pres. of Ore. Public Bcstg. He would prefer to see PBS treat its children’s services as a “public service and leave it at that. There isn’t much money in it, anyway,” he said. PBS also needs a “revenue model” for online operations that isn’t a “drain on stations,” he said: “In a sense, PBS.org has been built on the backs of the financial support of stations.” He fears PBS.org is pulling traffic off station sites into an “independent channel,” he said. Referring to Frontline’s decision to stream programming from local station websites rather than merely providing links, he said PBS should emulate such a model. Bass would prefer that PBS content “comes through the local station website rather than plastering a PBS.org up there,” he said.—Dinesh Kumar

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