PBS loses biggest underwriter as it considers 30-second credits

Adapted from an article in Current, Dec. 16, 2002

ExxonMobil will stop underwriting Masterpiece Theatre after spring 2004, the oil company announced [Dec. 13, 2002]. It has spent more than $250 million on MT and other PBS programs over 32 years. In recent years, the company has spent about $10 million a year, providing full funding for the drama series, says Jeanne Hopkins, v.p. of communications at WGBH, which packages the series.

For years before merging with Exxon, Mobil had also supported another series of largely British dramas, Mystery!, but Mobil had dropped funding of the sister series Mystery! several years ago.

As WGBH and its benefactor were preparing press releases Dec. 13, the PBS Board was meeting by phone to consider offering 30-second underwriting credits to ExxonMobil and other big underwriters that asked for more airtime in exchange for their donations. The board postponed its decision until it meets in person at the end of January.

After opposing 30-second spots for years, PBS is headed toward permitting them because producers are finding it tough to sign corporate underwriters. WGBH, for instance, would ordinarily have two underwriters apiece for Nova, Antiques Roadshow and Mystery!, but has only one each, Hopkins says. Underwriting execs say corporations have redirected their ad budgets to ads that move products rather than soft-sell promos intended to burnish corporate images.

"We thank ExxonMobil for underwriting more than 30 years of great drama," WGBH President Henry Becton said in a release.

Holmes in high hat surveys the hills for murderers

For most of Mobil's long run as sponsor of Masterpiece Theatre, it was the biggest importer of British drama into the States. Pictured: actors as Doctor Watson and Sherlock Holmes in a new BBC production of "The Hound of the Baskervilles," scheduled to air Jan. 19, 2003. (Photo copyright by the BBC.)


  Earlier story
Mobil hangs on to Masterpiece but drops Mystery!

Originally published in Current, May 15, 1995

Mobil Corp. is extending its funding of Masterpiece Theatre through 1999 but is saying goodbye to Mystery! as underwriter after the 1995-96 season. WGBH in Boston packages both popular programs. Mobil, sole supporter of both shows since their inception, announced the changes Friday.

The new contract is worth $27 million over three years, said Mobil media relations adviser Gail Campbell Woolley. PBS will provide partial interim funding for Mystery! over the next two years, with hopes that new corporate funders will join PBS for the 1996-97 season. Mobil's decision to pull out of Mystery! "speaks to the fragility of public television, that the longest and strongest of underwriters has its own financial realities,'' said Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of both shows for WGBH.

"Mobil's generous and long support of these two programs has been looked to as a paragon of how a new public television could be, with corporate underwriters dropping into place if federal funding ceases. For those who think there are five or 10 Mobils waiting in the wings, that just isn't the case.''

Mobil announced earlier this month it was eliminating 1,250 jobs as part of a major restructuring, but Woolley refused to describe dropping Mystery! as a cost-cutting measure. She said the corporation has been reviewing all programming support since a public relations restructuring in February. Aside from the two public TV shows, Mobil underwrites coverage of some track and field events. It recently dropped support of the Cotton Bowl, but Woolley said that was because the event was no longer part of the Southwest Conference.

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Outside link: Masterpiece Theatre's website.

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