Premiere Sponsorship plan
PBS considers stretching some underwriting credits to 30 seconds

Originally published in Current, Nov. 18, 2002
By Steve Behrens

Alarmed by the loss of underwriters for major programs, PBS would start offering 30-second underwriting credits to its biggest corporate donors under a proposal to be heard this week by committees of its board.

Though many big-city stations have long sold 30s, PBS still limits the length of spots on network programs to 15 seconds. But station support for that restriction has been waning for years. In 1995, PBS was surprised when many stations rebelled at its attempt to impose the 15-second limit on locally sold credits that air adjacent to PBS programs.

The 30-second credits of the proposed Premier Sponsorship deal would air only during primetime programming and the NewsHour, and they would be available only to underwriters that spend $2.5 million or more a year. Just four or five companies hit that threshold today, says Wayne Godwin, the network's chief operating officer. PBS would permit up to two 30s with each program. Credits still would be limited to two one-minute "pods" of credits per program, Godwin says.

PBS risks losing its largest underwriter, ExxonMobil, sole sponsor of Masterpiece Theatre, Godwin wrote in a memo to stations last week. Other companies won't underwrite programs because of limits on credit length, Godwin wrote. Based on reports from producing stations, he listed IBM, Visa, American Express, Sears, Panasonic, Samsung, Lexus, Acura and Paine Webber, among others.

The real choice for stations may not be 15-second or 30-second credits but having a major program or forgoing it, Godwin says.

Execs of producing stations estimate the system could lose $10 million to $15 million in national program underwriting if 30s are not approved, and could gain as much as $6 million if they are, according to Godwin.

Corporations are demanding the greatest exposure they can get for every dollar, says Judy Harris, head of the PBS Business division. Competing media are scrambling to offer advertisers "added value," she says.

In the uncertain economy, public TV has the disadvantage of trying to sell one-year and multiyear contracts to support programs when corporations can't see that far ahead, comments Bob Williams, head of National Public Broadcasting, a Boston-based underwriting sales agent for stations. PBS finds it hard to sell the soft image-building spots that corporations bought during the economy's Internet bubble, Williams says.

PBS floated the Premier Sponsorship proposal in a late October teleconference and plans to put it before its board of directors in mid-December, according to Godwin. In the meantime, the board's business committee will consider the proposal Nov. 18 and its membership committee Nov. 22.

The network was still collecting reactions from station execs last week, but some already weighed in: the proposed rules are too loose. Others said they're too tight.

The Organization of State Broadcasting Executives (OSBE) expressed concern that state governments would oppose the longer credits and cut their aid to pubcasters, Godwin wrote last week. OSBE leaders were not available for comment. In contrast, leaders of the Major Market Group of big-city stations said 30s should be available to all underwriters, Godwin said.

Steve Bass, president of Nashville PTV and a former underwriting exec at PBS, accepts the idea of 30-second spots, but says they should be offered only to underwriters at a level higher than the proposed $2.5 million threshold. He believes the content of underwriting spots, more than their length, determines whether they seem commercial.

Godwin said the proposal reflects the discussions among nine of the 10 station execs on a PBS task force on the proposal. The other, Maynard Orme, president of Oregon Public Broadcasting, said public TV has steadily loosened its rules for 20 years.

"There doesn't seem to be any stopping," Orme says. "We are just continuing to look more and more commercial. There are things I see on our air that make me cringe."

Later story
PBS supersizes spots for big underwriters

Adapted from Current, Feb. 10, 2003 and Dec. 2, 2002

To encourage corporate underwriting, the PBS Board has okayed 30-second underwriting credits for its most generous corporate donors.

Faced with underwriter vacancies on major series, the network will double the usual 15-second credits for underwriters whose donations exceed a threshold, initially proposed to be set at $2.5 million a year.

The board adopted the Premiere Sponsorship idea by a vote of 28-3 during its annual retreat Feb. 1 in Williamsburg, Va.

Voting nay were former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley; PBS Vice Chairman Susan Howarth, who is president of Cincinnati's WCET; and Maynard Orme, president of Oregon Public Broadcasting.

"To be perfectly honest, I've been torn about this one," says Howarth. She has worried that 30-second spots could make public TV look more commercial and hurt its reputation among other funders, including government. But she also hopes that two 30-second spots will make PBS seem less cluttered than four 15's.

PBS will allow the longer spots adjacent to primetime programs and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Groups of spots will not exceed a minute in length, and PBS will accept no more than two 30-second credits per program, PBS said.

The network made no changes in its restrictions the content and appearance of the spots.

The board's Membership Committee cleared the Premier Sponorship proposal by a vote of 9-1 on Nov. 22, 2002.

Three-quarters of station leaders responding to a PBS survey agreed that public TV needed to accept the Premier Sponsorship proposal, according to a network memo. Seventy percent backed the original proposal that credits should not be grouped in "pods" longer than one minute. The survey covered only half of PBS member stations.

Howarth cast the committee's lone nay vote. "I feel this is a step toward commercialism," she told Current. "I think as a system we need to do everything we possibly can to reinforce the noncommercial nature of public television."

To Current's home page
Earlier news: In 1999, public TV stations were evenly split between favoring and opposing credits expanded to 30 seconds.
Later news: ExxonMobil withdraws from sponsoring Masterpiece Theatre even as PBS considers expanded credits.

Web page revised Feb. 18, 2002
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