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public TV and radio in the United States

PBS Sponsorship Group
comes apart
PBS takes coordinator role between underwriting sales teams

Adapted from Current, April 21, 2003
By Steve Behrens

Public TV is realigning its national underwriting sales efforts, creating a central team at PBS to coordinate between two sales teams that work for groups of producing stations.

“We’re just evolving the sales process for public television to the next level,” says Judy L. Harris, executive v.p., PBS businesses and development.

Ellen Flahive, an experienced ad woman who was executive director of the PBS Sponsorship Group, will move from the affiliated group to PBS itself May 1 [2003] as v.p., sponsorship sales, reporting to Harris.

Flahive will coordinate underwriting sales efforts of other producers, including two teams working for groups of public TV’s most active producing stations:

The three biggest producing stations — Boston’s WGBH, New York’s WNET and Washington’s WETA — intend to continue their joint sales effort but will discontinue the PBS Sponsorship Group, which has lost its other station members, according to group chairman Lance Ozier of WGBH.

The stations will stick together because they’ve had good experience working together, “as opposed to the old way of working against each other,” Ozier says.

[Update: This didn't happen. WGBH created a sales unit called Sponsorship Group for Public Television (story below). WETA launched Public Broadcasting National Sales (story at right). WNET also went its own way.]

Seven producing stations with smaller program portfolios work with a parallel sales agent, Public Television National Productions.

PBS will work with both sales units and has a seat on the board of each.

Flahive will cultivate relationships with top executives of underwriters and their ad agencies and bring in salespeople for appropriate programs, according to Harris.

Harris knows the familiar complaint from prospective underwriters — that dealing with the hydra-headed PBS creature is confusing and time-consuming. “We’re going to make it very easy to do business with us,” she says.

That was a major objective for the PBS Sponsorship Group when it started six years ago, relying on the coordinated but separate sales forces of the producing stations, including the big-three stations that present 60 percent of PBS primetime programs and most of its long-established series.

KCET, Los Angeles, pulled out of the Sponsorship Group in 2000, with President Al Jerome saying the other stations’ salespeople had not sold credits on any of KCET’s shows. Chicago’s WTTW followed in March 2002 and Maryland PTV in December, according to Ozier.

Now KCET, WTTW and five other second-tier producing stations share the sales force of Public Television National Productions (PTNP), based in Ridgewood, N.J. The other members are San Francisco’s KQED, Oregon Public Broadcasting, Connecticut Public Broadcasting, Dallas’s KERA and Pittsburgh’s WQED.

PTNP’s salespeople coordinate the presentations of programs from various producers, according to Jerome, now chairman of the rep firm. “If we’re trying to sell PBS Hollywood Presents and OPB has another thing, it is the sales executive who coordinates the effort,” he says. That was supposed to happen in the Sponsorship Group, he explains, but cross-selling by employees of the member stations, who had exclusive relationships with prospects, “became a bit of a challenge.”

Jerome endorsed Flahive’s move to PBS in a press release. “Creating a sponsorship team at PBS to manage a national presence for public television is a terrific idea,” he said in the network’s release April 10. Flahive is “a very strong executive” and a good choice for the PBS position, he told Current.

Flahive, who joined the Sponsorship Group in December 2001 as national sales director and became executive director in May 2002, was publisher of 21 magazines published by Meredith Corp. for the major national parks. She also served as ad sales director for Parade magazine, publisher of Inside Media and a sales executive at Advertising Age and City & State.

She will have help from her own team of salespeople, Harris said. PBS is accepting bids from organizations that would contract with the network to provide a sales team.
The sales teams face a market that executives euphemistically call “challenging.” Corporate underwriting prospects spend less freely and increasingly expect to see a detectable financial return from their outlays, says Harris. PBS plans to offer research on viewer demographics and evidence that sponsorship “really pays back” to underwriters, she says.

PBS will sell the off-air advantages of sponsorship, such as attaching the sponsor’s name to target-audience outreach efforts. For instance, Harris says, PBS outreach materials for KCET’s American Family were aimed at Latinos, a population that is also a target audience for the underwriter, Johnson & Johnson.

Harris, Jerome and PTNP’s Jay Campbell say they’re working on signing an underwriter for a new season of American Family.

Corporate belt-tightening and apprehension are making sales difficult for WGBH as well, where the popular Antiques Roadshow has vacancies in two of its three underwriting slots, according to Ozier. In response, the producers will cut costs by taking the show to four cities instead of six and by filling some episodes with compilations of segments from past seasons, he says.

The station’s programs could accommodate credits that would bring in an additional $10 million, he estimates. A team of sales executives including Harris is working to replace ExxonMobil before it ends its long-term sponsorship of Masterpiece Theatre next year, he says.

But WGBH can report some successes, including the recent signing of Microsoft as the second of three underwriters for Nova and of Volkswagen as sole underwriter for The Blues.

The new bonus for big underwriters — doubling credit length from 15 to 30 seconds, as approved by the PBS Board in February — has let salespeople “have some conversations we haven’t had before,” says Ozier. Sponsors that spend more than $2.5 milion a year are eligible for the longer credits. VW will qualify with The Blues, he reports, and ExxonMobil is preparing a 30-second credit.

WGBH underwriting chief
hired from magazine world

Originally published in Current, July 14, 2003

Suzanne Zellner, an experienced magazine advertising exec, has been named director of WGBH’s new underwriting sales operation, the Sponsorship Group for Public Television.

Zellner has worked 16 years in sales, account management and product management for Ziff Communications and CMP Media, two major publishers of technology periodicals. She also played leading roles at three Internet startups and is founding executive director of MassWIT, a networking organization for professional women.

She succeeds sales manager Michael Burton, who has taken a non-underwriting position at AOL Time Warner’s This Old House Ventures, producer of This Old House.

This month Zellner’s 15-person unit picks up the sales effort formerly handled by the now-defunct PBS Sponsorship Group, a consortium that included WGBH, New York’s WNET and Washington’s WETA.

Pulling back from special involvement with those big stations earlier this spring, PBS hired the Sponsorship Group’s chief, Ellen Flahive [story above]. She is assisting sales efforts by not only the biggest producing stations but also those of other producers including Public Television National Productions, a group of seven smaller producing stations.

WGBH’s underwriting team initially will represent only its own productions, which account for almost a third of the PBS primetime schedule, but the station is considering taking on other producers as clients. For example, says Lance Ozier, v.p. of national program marketing, “We might imagine adding a couple of children’s programs to our portfolio.”
Ozier says the outlook for underwriting sales is less grim than in recent months. The station will soon announce a couple of underwriters.

Web page posted Jan. 4, 2003
Current: the newspaper about public TV and radio
in the United States
Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.


By 1995, many public TV stations were carrying 30-second underwriting spots at least occasionally. PBS resisted the trend until 2003.

PBS Sponsorship Group began courting national underwriters on behalf of national program producers in 1997.

In 1997, major public TV stations joined with cable ad sales exec Bob Williams to start National Public Television to sell underwriting spots on stations around the country, competing with national program producers.

Public radio could sell more underwriting at the local level if it hired more salespeople, fundraisers say in June 2003.


PBS Sponsorship, the network's umbrella sponsorship site.

Public Television National Productions website, which represents several medium-sized producing stations.

State funding, like corporate underwriting, also is lagging during the recession, a Newhouse News Service article reported in June 2003. On OSBE's website.

FitzGerald heads sales effort
for WETA, PBS underwriting

Originally published in Current, Aug. 4, 2003

Dana FitzGerald, new v.p. of national program marketing at WETA, starts with PBS as a major client. The network announced [in July 2003] that it hired WETA to sell underwriting for the programs for which it holds underwriting rights, including the forthcoming America Beyond the Color Line with Henry Louis Gates and continuing series such as Now with Bill Moyers, Caillou, Teletubbies and Clifford the Big Red Dog.

WETA’s expanded underwriting unit operates under the name Public Broadcasting National Sales. The unit will also handle the stable of programs presented by WETA, including Ken Burns documentaries and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

Before FitzGerald joined WETA as director of national program marketing last year, he worked for more than 20 years for CBS and Westinghouse Broadcasting. He moved into public TV as director of corporate support at Maryland PTV.

With the end of the PBS Sponsorship Group in July, producing stations have gone their separate ways, announcing a pack of sound-alike sales units.

WGBH launched Sponsorship Group for Public Television, which will sell underwriting on the station’s shows.

WNET will sell its own inventory of credits.