October 3rd, 2006

Advertisers Get Warmer Reception From PBS

By Tom Siebert
MediaPost (MediaDailyNews)

PBS is rolling with the times. Faced with a shrinking budget from Congress and the loss of major supporters for two of its most popular programs, PBS is embracing new ways for its sponsors to air their company messages. The nonprofit net has brokered creative deals through its advertising arm, The Sponsorship Group for Public Television.

Just like for-profit broadcast and cable networks, PBS is offering sponsors increased exposure across a variety of platforms, including the Internet, podcasts and product tie-ins, as well as longer-form sponsor messages.

The increased aggressiveness for corporate dollars follows a House of Representatives subcommittee’s June vote to reduce federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which oversees PBS and National Public Radio, by $115 million. The cuts don’t take effect, however, unless both houses of Congress approve them. Last year, a similar recommendation failed.

Still, there is an increased urgency for PBS. ExxonMobil, a leading sponsor of “Masterpiece Theater,” has dropped the program. Toyota has left “Antiques Roadshow.”

Marcia Hertz, managing director of marketing and client services for the SGPTV, acknowledges that PBS has increasingly warmed to sponsors’ requests for greater exposure. But she points out that the network’s rules of commercial engagement are unique.

“It’s been two years since PBS allowed 30-second spots, as opposed to 15-second spots, as long as a sponsor reaches a threshold of $1.5 million,” she says. “That does not mean that PBS is breaking into programs. They do not allow product to be shown on kids’ programming. There is an important distinction between what advertisers can do on network television and what they can do on PBS.”

Hertz referred questions about a possible advertising influence on PBS programming to a corporate representative, who did not return calls at press time.

One critic called the PBS trend “regrettable,” saying the network was “forsaking its mission.”

“This is typical in the arc of PBS, which is seen as hell-bent to become a commercial network,” says Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert. “As PBS becomes more of an agent of marketing, it will grow less popular and [viewer financial] support will be less. It’s a death spiral.”

In the world of public broadcasting and private enterprise, there are opportunities for disconnects. One key new partnership for PBS is Arby’s sponsorship of “Fetch"--the new children’s program, which includes the canine host, Ruff, in the fast-food chain’s children’s meals promotion. Last week, the FCC announced that it would explore links between advertising and childhood obesity for a 2007 report. 

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