Rules tightened on underwriting spots aimed at kids

Wishbone seeks other backers after Cheetos pull out

By Karen Everhart Bedford

Originally published in Current, Feb. 17, 1997

Chester Cheetah won't be promoting his orange cheese puffs to viewers of the PBS show Wishbone after all. Marketers of the Frito-Lay's Cheetos decided against a $1 million underwriting deal that could have brought junk-food promotion to PBS's children's service. And PBS has taken steps to prevent such possibilities in the future.

The PBS Board on Feb. 2 [1997] approved a new set of rules to guide underwriting decisions involving brands and products that are especially appealing to children. The new guidelines note that "these are the kinds of credits that will most often raise concerns about commercial exploitation of young viewers."

The changes respond to a furor raised by children's media activists last fall when word leaked out that producers of Wishbone were discussing sponsorship with Cheetos, a brand of Pepsico's Frito-Lay Co. The Center for Media Education, a foundation-funded media watchdog in Washington, declared the proposal an "absolute outrage" that violated PBS's noncommercial standards. The Center threatened to call down upon PBS greater congressional scrutiny of its underwriting practices if it accepted the deal.

The scrutiny came in a different forum. In early December, CME organized a meeting at which activists and congressional staff screened several spots that air around children's programs on WETA, Washington. Attendees who saw the national spots for Juicy Juice and Chuck E. Cheese pizza parlors, and a local message for Chef-Boyardee canned food, were shocked at "the extent of advertising on public broadcasting," according to Jeff Chester, executive director. PBS officials attending the meeting "met with very strong disbelief when they suggested it wasn't advertising."

Brand names, but no mascots

PBS's new underwriting rules will prohibit many of the ad-like practices questioned by observers inside and outside the system. Credits targeting children must now:

  • include brief, value-neutral descriptions of the underwriter's product or services (for example, "Chuck E. Cheese restaurants").
  • use the remainder of the underwriting credit to offer a statement of support for PBS and public TV, or a message supporting learning and education ("Exercise your head. Read! Ghostwriter is brought to you in part by Nike.")

The rules still allow the use of brand names, but only if the spot identifies the sponsoring corporation in video in a lower-third super. Underwriter logos may appear in video, but the rules explicitly prohibit the use of spokescharacters or mascots like Cheetos' cheetah. Also banned are audio or visual elements that evoke the underwriter's radio or TV commercials; depictions of any brand or product other than the underwriter's name or logo; and credits whose dominant purpose is to build brand recognition among children.

None of the underwriting messages currently airing will be affected by the changes.

CME, which praised PBS for the changes, now plans to send letters to local public TV stations, urging them to comply with the new guidelines, according to Chester.

As for Wishbone, the series is moving into production for eight new episodes while Lyrick continues its search for underwriting, according to spokesman Russell Mack. The new package of shows will include at least two one-hour specials for primetime or early fringe.

There's still a possibility that Chester and Wishbone could pair up for off-air promotional tie-ins. When it withdrew from underwriting talks, Frito-Lay announced that it was considering "other partnerships" with Wishbone.

photo of Wishbone the dog

Earlier story

When a funder arrives bearing cheese puffs

Originally published in Current, Nov. 11, 1996

By Karen Everhart Bedford

Has PBS, eager to raise funds for children's programs, opened the door for more ad-like underwriting spots to air around them?

Complaints that the network may compromise its commercial-free oasis for young TV viewers surfaced after the Washington Post reported Oct. 23 [1996] that Frito-Lay was offering $1 million to underwrite Wishbone, a popular but expensive new series that urgently needs a funder.

Advocates for good children's TV picked up on the story, threatening "war" on PBS if it accepts underwriting credited to Cheetos cheese-flavored snack food.

PBS denies that it has received any such underwriting proposal from Lyrick Studios, an arm of the Dallas-based company that also produces Barney & Friends. "No one could be more concerned with maintaining public television's reputation for quality and integrity, of course, than PBS," President Ervin Duggan wrote in an Oct. 30 letter to Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). "[F]or this reason, we always give careful scrutiny to proposals to underwrite children's programs."

But PBS's underwriting policy, revised by its board in June, now allows the use of brand names in sponsorship announcements for all programs. The result already is visible within PBS's children's block: the brand name Juicy Juice, a product of Libby's, is used in underwriting credits around Arthur, a new animated series for school-aged children.

The policy change was intended to correct an unfair advantage the old rules gave to sponsors whose corporate identity is also a brand name--such as Visa or Coca-Cola. But another consequence of the change is that it could allow brand names for junk food, for example, to be attached to PBS's children's programs.

A briefing paper recommending the policy change to board members acknowledged the "potential sensitivity" of crediting brand names during kidvid, but urged passage because "postponing this change would result in a year's delay in capitalizing on the potential of this new approach."

Along with his letter to Rep. Markey, Duggan enclosed a videotape of underwriting spots for Arthur and Barney, which has three corporate sponsors. "To date, we have received virtually no viewer mail expressing concern about these acknowledgments," Duggan wrote in the letter. "It is our view, based on both empirical data and opinion research, that the viewing public recognizes and openly accepts the important purpose served by corporate support of PBS programming, and has no objection to the brief messages of thanks we include--as distinct from commercial promotions, which we strictly prohibit."

PBS spokesman Stu Kantor noted that PBS's sponsorship rules for children's programs remain more stringent than those governing general audience programs. Credits cannot depict products, and mascots can appear only under certain conditions.

"Ultimately, PBS program business affairs has to clear underwriting credits and decide whether an underwriting credit comports with the noncommercial nature of public TV," Kantor added. Just because the guidelines permit more commercial approaches doesn't mean PBS will allow them.

When it debuted last fall, Wishbone quickly struck a chord with its audience, which includes a surprising mix of children and young adults. In September, PBS announced plans to buy a still undetermined number of new episodes, even though the producers were still seeking much needed corporate support. Wishbone production reportedly costs $500,000 per episode.

Call for safeguards

Both PBS and Lyrick Studios have since sought to distance themselves from the possibility of Cheetos spots. "At this point no proposal has been brought to us for review and clearance," said Kantor. "I will not conjecture about a hypothetical."

A spokesman for Lyrick said that as a private company, the production house does not discuss potential underwriters. "We have been talking with potential underwriters for some time," he said, but would not confirm whether Cheetos was one of them.

"We have a quality show and any underwriting credit that would be part of that would have to meet our high standards and be very appropriate for our audience," said Mack.

Dallas-based Frito-Lay, which produces Cheetos, did not respond to Current's request for an interview. However, sources close to PBS confirmed that Cheeto's potential sponsorship has been under discussion at PBS. Wayne Godwin, a PBS Board member and president of WCET, Cincinnati, recalled hearing about the possibility through an informal, hallway conversation during a recent visit to PBS.

Another station source who requested anonymity said PBS was considering "taking a second look at its underwriting guidelines" for children's programs. The source described a proposal that would require brand sponsorship messages to be directed to adults, and said PBS is considering reconvening a task force to look at the issue.

Kantor confirmed that PBS had recently received a proposal to target messages at adults, but he downplayed the possibility that it would empanel another task to revise the guidelines. "There are people with expertise at the stations whom we call upon informally for insight." Right now PBS is engaged in "a process of multiple conversations with people inside and outside of PBS."

The Washington-based Center for Media Education, which reacted ferociously to news of Wishbone's potential sponsors, is one such outside party to hold talks with PBS. In a Nov. 4 meeting at Braddock Place, CME officials told PBS executives that the new guidelines did not adequately protect children's programs from commercialism, recalled Jeffrey Chester, executive director.

"PBS has to look at the new underwriting rules more closely and develop more meaningful safeguards," Chester said. CME would prefer that PBS convene a task force with outside experts.

CME also asked PBS to "investigate the relationships that children's television producers have with corporate sponsors outside of PBS," said Chester. In today's marketing environment of cobranding and strategic alliances, PBS needs to "look at the larger picture and gather more information about these relationships."



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