Current Online

Corporate mascots (still as rocks) and celebs to appear in sponsor credits

Originally published in Current, July 8, 2002
By Karen Everhart

Corporate mascots can now appear in underwriting credits for PBS Kids shows, under relaxed guidelines approved by the PBS Board June 23 [2002].

The new rule, probably the most controversial of five changes to PBS's sponsorship guidelines, allows only still images of mascots next to a sponsor's logo. The audio message for such spots must promote educational values or express support for PBS.

PBS vetted proposed rule changes with an advisory group of station leaders and showed a reel of sample spots to focus groups in three markets: Philadelphia, Portland, Ore., and Washington, D.C. Parents whose kids watch PBS weren't bothered by a spot in which a corporate mascot appears as a still image, but they objected to an ad in which Ronald McDonald runs around and interacts with children, network execs said.

"Once you watched these, it was pretty obvious to everybody what was acceptable and what wasn't," said Nebraska ETV's Rod Bates, a PBS Board member who served on the advisory committee. "I'm not at all worried about how these will be received. I don't think people are going to notice at all."

PBS reviews its guidelines at least every three years and proposes changes based on new developments in the sponsorship market, shifting views among station leaders and viewer perceptions, said Catherine Hogan, senior director of program management and underwriting policy. Past rule changes have boosted PBS underwriting income, although not immediately. "The hope is that this will help improve the underwriting climate."

All of the changes, Hogan said, have to meet the first rule of PBS's underwriting policy — that each credit be "in keeping with the noncommercial nature of public television."

Hogan characterized the changes to primetime spots as incremental. "These are changes that we feel as a practical matter can be helpful in identifying a funder and fall within the parameters of rule No. 1."

Primetime sponsorship guidelines will allow depiction of multiple products in a spot, appearances by employees or celebrities expressing support for public TV, and toll-free phone numbers and/or website addresses.

Spots can also include images of people representing a sponsor's target market and its product within the same spot, as long as these images don't appear simultaneously. "We're drawing the line at showing people or consumers interacting or consuming a product or deriving satisfaction from a product," Hogan explained.

Before the board approved the rule changes, Maynard Orme, president of Oregon Public Broadcasting, noted that participants in the Portland focus groups described public TV and radio as increasingly commercialized. "I would hope that even though these do open up more opportunities for underwriters . . . that we certainly apply the smell test on all these things."

Miami Herald Publisher Alberto Ibargen, vice chairman of the PBS Board, questioned whether viewers are confusing PBS with its ad-supported cable competitors. The History Channel offers "PBS-quality programming" interrupted by ads, he noted. "I think a lot of the confusion is not due to what we do, but to what others do to copy us."

The PBS Board also stripped a $3 million investment in digital programming from PBS's fiscal 2003 budget. PBS had requested a two-tiered increase in its programming dues — 2.3 percent to be directed to the National Program Service and 2.7 percent to invest in new digital content. When board members contacted station executives to gauge support for the proposal, they found that the increase was too steep. Bates said many station executives he spoke with wanted PBS to lay out its digital service plan before they invest in it. The budget approved by the board included only the 2.3 percent increase in NPS spending.

To Current's home page
Current Briefing on commercialism in public broadcasting.
Outside links: PBS National Program Funding Standards and PBS Sponsorship Group, a major seller of underwriting spots on PBS.

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