PBS Slots Spots for Biggest Underwriters

Don’t expect to see streaking sports fans or dancing pop stars on PBS anytime soon. Still, mounting financial woes have led the Public Broadcasting Service to venture further into the commercial arena.

Sponsors currently can buy 15-second underwriting messages; they will now be allowed to run 30-second underwriting spots in prime-time programming and The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer. No more than one minute worth of commercial messages can air at a time, and they cannot interrupt programming. And PBS’ significant restrictions on sponsors’ messages remain—for instance, spots may not feature speaking actors, cite price information or include a call to action.

Nonetheless, “there are a lot of corporate ads that I think will be OK,” said Guy McCarter, senior vp and director of entertainment marketing at OMD USA. “It’s going to be a lot easier now to do those underwriting deals. Not being able to run a :30 has been a big obstacle.”

At a PBS board meeting earlier this month in New York, where the new policy passed 28-3, directors voted to limit eligibility for 30-second spots to sponsors that spend at least $2.5 million annually in underwriting fees, but left some allowance for PBS managers to adjust that limit.

The most recent bad news for public television’s finances came Feb. 3, when the Bush administration sent Congress a budget that proposes to tighten funding for public broadcasting. Public stations are also facing the multimillion-dollar construction costs that come with establishing digital service, mandated by May 2004, a year after the deadline for commercial broadcasters.

“We’re being hammered by a kind of ‘perfect storm’ of revenue shortfalls,” said John Lawson, president and CEO of the Association of Public Television Stations, a trade group.

The wide margin of approval for the new policy reflects, in part, the widespread acceptance of 30-second spots among local public stations. PBS said 26 stations in the Top 30 markets already allow local underwriters to buy 30-second messages.

“The market has changed,” noted Wayne Godwin, executive vp and chief operating officer of PBS. “There are different pressures on corporate funders than there were five to ten years ago. As long as we can maintain the noncommercial nature of these spots, we believe we can reward current sponsors who provide significant underwriting—and attract sponsors who are not yet at that level of underwriting to bump up.”

But one of the three board members who voted against the change in policy warns that PBS is in danger of losing its unique appeal. Said Susan Howarth, president and CEO of WCET in Cincinnati, “I really believe it’s important for public television to do everything it can do to maintain its distinction as a noncommercial service.”

While some marketers see opportunity in PBS’ upscale demographics and lack of commercial clutter, several media buyers said extending the time allowed for sponsors may not be enough to close a deal. “Going another 15 seconds and saying nothing about our brand? I don’t know that that’s going to attract incremental funding,” said Laura Caraccioli, director of Starcom Entertainment. “It’s great that PBS has woken up and joined this century. But I don’t think it’s going to make anybody raise their hand and say, ‘I’m going to consider sponsoring.’ ” —with Sandy Brown