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Simpler rules sought for PBS underwriters

Task forces promote 'stewardship' and smoother process for donors

Originally published in Current, Sept. 19, 1994
By Steve Behrens

Task forces appointed by PBS have recommended that the network streamline its decision-making on underwriter credits, giving less weight to its complex guidelines and more to case-by-case judgments about whether the proposed credits look and sound noncommercial.

At the same time, the task forces' discussion paper, issued this month, suggested that stations adopt uniform standards for local underwriting credits and cooperate with PBS by scheduling same-day common carriage of ''a reasonable number'' of key national programs.

Station fundraisers attending the PBS Development Conference in Anaheim will have sessions for discussion of the proposals Sept. 23 and 24 [1994], to be followed by further talks at the PBS Executive Committee in October and the Fall Planning Meeting in November.

The issues have been debated for years but now appear in a more compelling context. With stations unable or unwilling to greatly boost their spending on national productions, corporate underwriting remains the most promising revenue source to keep PBS competitive with cable networks. It has paid 31 to 37 percent of PBS National Program Service production costs in recent years.

But some big corporate underwriters have bailed out or are spending less on public TV, and PBS expects that total corporate underwriting will be down this year for the second straight year.

The recommendations come out of three station/PBS task forces of the network's National Program Funding Climate Project, which aimed to make national underwriting less frustrating and more attractive to corporations.

Thanks from Bill and Erv

The discussion paper calls upon stations and producers to accept collective ''stewardship'' toward national underwriters--helping meet the corporations' marketing needs, building and honoring relationships with them, easing the underwriting process, and thanking them privately and publicly.

Not only has PBS President Ervin Duggan written more than 150 ''thank you'' letters to underwriters this year, but PBS arranged to have President Clinton sign thank-yous to about 100 of them, says Janice L. Wilson, PBS's director of corporate support. PBS will also insert plugs for national underwriters in PBS-provided print advertising and promotion, and the paper suggests that stations do the same.

The task forces recommend specific ways that stations, producers and PBS pull together. Producers, for example, are implored to alert stations when a big underwriter has specific marketing objectives in their communities, and stations are urged to cooperate by inviting local representatives from the company to appear on pledge nights and come to receptions.

And PBS will develop formal plans before November's Fall Planning Meeting to improve its own internal communications among the various departments that deal with underwriters.

But the most prominent recommended changes would remove the obscure and inconsistent rules and exhausting procedures that turn off underwriting prospects. Corporations' common complaint, the report says, is ''You make it so hard for us to give you our money!''

Looking to Rule No. 1

In particular, the paper urges stations to adopt consistent guidelines for on-air credits: ''All of public television, including stations and non-PBS distribution channels (a) must observe the same guidelines regarding the content of underwriting announcements and (b) must establish and observe a maximum standard length of 15 seconds for the identificaiton of a single underwriter.'' Selling 30-second credits, as some stations do, ''poses a serious threat'' to national underwriting, one task force says.

On the national level, PBS would rely less on its ''elaborate and detailed'' guidelines, built up over the years, and more on its existing Rule No. 1:

''The overall content and on-air appearance of each credit must be in keeping with the noncommercial nature of public television.''

Metropolitan Life, for instance, will be able to feature not only Snoopy but also his little bird friends in an underwriter credit, says Wilson. In the past, a PBS rule permitted only a single mascot to appear in a credit. But adding the cartoon birds does not make the credit any more commercial.

Perhaps the first credit assessed largely under Rule No. 1 was one for Lexus automobiles, which Wilson believes may be the first PBS credit showing a moving car. In the past, credits couldn't show an underwriter's product in use.

Basing judgments on Rule No. 1 will be more subjective than past decision-making, Wilson acknowledges. She says PBS has created a new committee to handle ''tough calls'' and appeals. Members will be PBS vice presidents Jennifer Lawson, Bob Ottenhoff, Peter Downey and Jon Abbott. Most decisions, however, will remain in the hands of Catherine Lykes, director, program underwriting policy, Wilson expects.

Other recommendations aim to improve PBS relations with underwriters who give less than the big spenders of past years. The average commitment from national corporate underwriters has dropped from $430,000 in 1989 to $340,000 last year, and fewer are shouldering entire series by themselves.

When a program has to add a fourth or fifth underwriter, the paper recommends, PBS would be able to increase the total on-air credit time beyond the present 30 seconds limit. And that maximum credit period also would be expanded, in effect, by not counting about eight seconds of credits for CPB and ''Viewers Like You.''

PBS would be more welcoming to underwriting for specific episodes of series rather than entire series. Wilson says episode-by-episode funding hasn't been encouraged.

Public TV also would make its processes easier for underwriters. So that they get a clear picture of PBS's intentions toward a proposed program, the network would make it clearer to producers whether it's interested in distributing a program. Producers would always submit programs in advance for PBS review even if they're not looking for money from PBS.

And so that PBS can be confident that producers can deliver the programs that it's counting on, the producers would always submit funding plans when they bring a program idea to the network. Producers would consult with PBS about the ''appropriateness'' of potential funding deals.

New approach to common carriage

The report this month makes no specific proposal to promote common carriage, but PBS has already informally begun flagging specific shows for special attention. John Grant, senior v.p. for PBS's National Program Service, says fewer than a third of primetime programs this fall were recommended for common carriage--a much narrower ''core'' than the portion of the schedule that former PBS President Lawrence Grossman sought for common carriage in the early 1980s.

Most stations are cooperating with the requests, Grant says, and PBS has not proposed detailed incentives or other policies.

This new approach to common carriage leaves much more primetime for stations to control locally. The discussion paper refers to this as a balance: ''Stations must commit to live carriage of a reasonable number of programs in the national schedule, balancing sensitivities to station needs with the underwriters' needs to maximize national advertising and promotion opportunities.''

Grant says it's also an acknowledgement that PBS didn't and doesn't consistently deliver enough top-quality programs to justify requesting common carriage for two hours a night. ''It falls apart unless PBS has great programming in those hours. If you put 'B' or 'C' programming Monday at 9 p.m., you've lost that battle.''

Now, PBS is asking for common carriage for programs that have exceptional educational outreach materials, ad and promo support, underwriting dollars and quality, he says.

PBS and major producing stations contend that some underwriters demand common carriage and that it's necessary to place national tune-in advertising and to get program publicity and reviews in national media.

Programmers resistant to common carriage spoke against the idea at the PBS annual meeting in June, arguing that they could win larger audiences for programs by scheduling them independently at the best time for their towns.

Grant disagrees. ''Is it worth getting ratings up by a tenth of a rating point if the underwriter may simply walk, because they don't know when their show is on?'' he asks.

National Funding Climate Project
Task Force members

Underwriting Policy ("guidelines"): Beth Courtney of Louisiana PTV
Jeff Epremiam of WNET, New York
Robert Gardiner of Maine Public Broadcasting
Wayne Godwin of WCET in Cincinnati
Mike Hardgrove of KETC in St. Louis
Polly Kosko of South Carolina ETV
Mike Soper, formerly of WETA in Washington
Staff liaisons: Peter Downey and Cathy Lykes of PBS

Process and Communication:
Catherine Anderson of WTVS in Detroit
Donald Derheim of KQED in San Francisco
Victoria Devlin of WGBH
Polly Kosko of South Carolina ETV
Jonathan Olken of WNET
Jonathan Wells of WETA
Staff liaisons: Jennifer Lawson and John Grant of PBS

Product and Packaging:
Wendy Bromley of WNET
Craig Brush of WPBT
Kent Geist of WVIZ in Cleveland
Pam Herman of WGBH
Janice Jones of CPB
Neil Mahrer of WETA
Jeanne Paynter of KCET in Los Angeles
Sharon Philappart of Maryland PTV
Chris Ramsey of MacNeil/Lehrer Productions
Staff liaison: Carole Feld of PBS

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Task force members.


PBS Board adopts penalties for noncomplying underwriting spots, 1995.