A couple, eyes locked, arms intertwinedWe take another step in a seductive dance with commerce

A commentary originally published in Current, Feb. 10, 2003
By Wick Rowland

The PBS Board’s adoption of the Premier Sponsorship plan [article] is troubling in two ways. First, it highlights the extent to which commercialism continues to spread across the face of U.S. public broadcasting. Second, it reveals how poorly we are positioned to deal with the matter.

Public broadcasting has long been involved in a slow, increasingly seductive dance and it has no idea where the music will lead it.

The reasons for the growth of commercial support in public broadcasting are perfectly understandable, particularly in light of the persistently small amount of federal funding and the pattern of shrinking state support. The failure of public officials to stand up for robust, tax-based funding of public culture remains a great weakness of American society.

The current struggle over proposed rescissions for this year’s federal funding and further reductions in subsequent years could not be a more poignant case in point.

If political leaders don’t allocate more public funding and make stronger commitments to educational values in media, it will be difficult for the advocates of noncommercialism in public broadcasting to hold the line against sponsorship pressures. Public broadcasters understandably have found it necessary to test expanded private revenue streams. In moderation, these may be acceptable or even desirable, but without limit they can become seriously overpowering.

At some point U.S. public broadcasting has to awake from the reverie. It must take stock of the drifting sponsorship situation and clarify both its long-term philosophy toward commercialism and its tactical plans for dealing with the issue.

In an earlier era, the notions of sponsorship and commercial underwriting were anathema to whole sectors of public broadcasting. Over the past two decades, however, commercial practices and values have pervaded the system. In its handling of commercial support, public broadcasting now resembles commercial radio in the 1930s and 1940s. What we euphemistically call "enhanced underwriting," particularly with brand names, slogans, mascots and other advertising paraphernalia, now permitted by PBS to run 30 seconds long, is remarkably similar in character to commercial sponsorship before the rise of spot advertising. Our underwriting system has not yet gone so far as calling viewers to action or interrupting programs, but it is moving steadily in that direction.

As in the recent Premiere Sponsorship decision, the problem is construed narrowly, as little more than an operational problem. Harried committees and staffs had to deal with hasty pre-holiday surveys and queries from PBS. The waltz becomes a galop, executed in the weeks between national PBS meetings, instead of a face-to-face conversation at one of those meetings. Without open forums, there was no place to take a deep breath and discuss implications of the change.

With a few heroic exceptions, public television leaders with concerns about this trend have been able to discuss it only privately. Similar lacunas can be found in public radio and at CPB, too.

There are serious policy implications. Our weakening position on noncommercialism makes it difficult to tell Congress that we remain true to basic "noncommercial, educational" tenets. We appear content to accept a tradeoff: retracted public funding and growing commercial support. That posture undermines our arguments for preservation of reserved noncommercial frequencies and our efforts to extend reservations or must-carry into digital cable.

I don’t argue for a hard-line, pristinely noncommercial, no-sponsorship position. Most other countries with strong public-service broadcasting have devised hybrids with support from both taxes or license fees and advertising. But in all those cases there is substantially more public funding. Per capita, the public support for public broadcasting abroad, and even just north of the border, remains orders of magnitude greater than in the United States, and that balance moderates the influence of commercial money on programming. Other countries also have creative mechanisms for handling commercials, such as blocks of ads, that help set public-service broadcasters apart from purely commercial enterprises.

But the concern here is that we never seem to take the issue by the throat and deal comprehensively with long-term implications of the choices being made. Instead, we give up ground in bits and pieces. Each change of underwriting policy comes in isolation, usually with solemn pledges about never going any further. We don’t mark any single change as a step across a brightly colored line. But over time these steps have added up to a sea change.

The complaint about commercial broadcasting has long been that it has cheapened the civic landscape. Cities are no longer communities; they are markets. Viewers and listeners are no longer citizens, they are consumers. Public broadcasting has stood against that view of society. At a time when unrestrained commercial influence on the major networks is giving viewers new lows of unreality TV, we have an opportunity to remind policy-makers that public broadcasting is a true home for the mind and civil discourse. But as it has been engaged in its own increasingly torrid dance with commercialism, it has had difficulty sustaining that claim.

Public broadcasting has been sliding inexorably into an embrace that it never consciously sought, and that may be the most dangerous aspect of the waltz. We have not been able to look our partner directly in the eye and confront the reality of the steps we are taking. In effect, they constitute a steady drift away from one of the core principles of public service broadcasting—independence from commercial pressures. We have had vigorous, thoughtful debates on our programming patterns and the question of political autonomy. But we do not speak as passionately and intelligently about our ever-closer relationship with the marketplace.

Again, it is hardly any wonder. Metaphors of alligators and swamps come to mind. But somewhere, somehow, U.S. public broadcasting must have a purposeful conversation about this matter. Otherwise we will continue to change incrementally and wake up one day with a partner we did not actually seek, having become something we never planned for and seeing in the mirror something which we actually abhor.

Simultaneously we must mount a debate about the over-arching issue of adequate total funding. The fundamental question for public broadcasting is whether it seeks to become a larger, more truly powerful counterweight to the commercial electronic media. Without such an ambition, there is little incentive to press for substantially increased funding from any sector or to attempt to keep them in balance. Without such a policy, the system remains trapped in a no-man’s land—funded just well enough to serve as a political safety valve for the shortcomings of the commercial system, but not sufficiently to serve as a defining, core institution in American broadcasting.

What will public broadcasting choose to do about the situation? Will it merely try to fend off the worst of the current federal funding rollback options and continue to struggle with the pressures for increasing commercialization (and the equally unpalatable, closely related dilemmas of transactional pledge), or will it have the courage to define a more consequential place for itself as a true public-service entity with clear noncommercial standards.

Thinking bigger will be difficult in the current political climate. The proponents of realpolitik will scoff at any effort that looks beyond the current annual appropriations process and that contemplates expanding federal funding. We will be told that such thinking is hopeless; that our best bet is to lie low and wait for a better time.

But in such realism lies the proceeds of despair. The better time will never come. Caution has not served us well over the years. It has led to complacency about our situation and diminished ambition. Every time we have come to believe that we can ride out the political problem of the moment, some crisis occurs that undercuts previous gains.

In a supreme irony, we end up being criticized for the growing commercialization. By declining to stand tall for our own noncommercial values and an expansive vision of public service, the system fails to resist the pressures that appear to merge it into the great American entertainment machine.

To overcome this inertia, public broadcasting should undertake a major inquiry into the entire issue of sponsorship and commercialism in the system, to be carried out over the next 18 months. CPB and the national membership organizations should convene a distinguished study commission to provide a careful analysis of the current trends in commercialization and recommendations to Congress and the White House about how to slow and reverse them and when to permit them to advance.

This commission should be made up of public broadcasters and notable outsiders—leaders in business, arts and culture, who can address the tricky, subtle issues of how different funding mechanisms influence programming and institutional culture in public-service enterprises.

The study should be comprehensive and go back to the principles and assumptions of the two Carnegie reports, the iterations of public broadcasting law since 1967 and the Temporary Commission on Alternative Financing experiment with advertising in the early 1980s. It should explore the meanings and boundaries of public service and noncommercial values here and abroad.

The commission should frame the issues to help the public and Congress understand the contradictions that have emerged in federal funding, licensing and regulatory policies and the tradeoffs implicit in further commercialization and declining public funding. If handled correctly, the commission could open up the broader debate about overall funding goals and the mechanisms for realizing them, and it should be timed to coincide with the 2004 elections.

Public broadcasters and their friends need to take charge of the score and change the step. A serious, sound examination of the drift into commercialism is an alternative dance we could all joyfully undertake.

Willard D. "Wick" Rowland, Ph.D., is president of KBDI-TV, Colorado Public Television, Denver. He is former dean and professor emeritus of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Colorado and a widely published scholar of communications policy.

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Earlier news: PBS Board adopts Premiere Sponsorship benefits for generous underwriters, Feb. 1, 2003.

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