Tour aims to correct ad world's notions about underwriting, introduces PBS Sponsorship Group

Originally published in Current, May, 12, 1997

By Steve Behrens

Manhattan -- Waiters were folding up the luncheon tables, ad executives were returning to their offices with moderate slices of portabello mushroom gracing their digestive canals, and PBS had finished its second round of PBS Premiere events.

"We've begun the dance," said Jan Wilson, the network's director of corporate support.

Like the glitzier "upfront" parties that the commercial networks throw this time of year, PBS was putting its spin on the selling season. Some 180 ad people listened and lunched April 30 [1997] in a former Sixth Avenue department store with a PBS banner flying outside. They heard much the same pitch as previously given to audiences of about 100 in Beverly Hills and Chicago.

"Welcome to the new PBS," said Bill Baker, president of the host station, WNET, who was first up. "Corporate messages on PBS get more creative every year. You can show products. You can use slogans." PBS is now "user-friendly."

PBS President Ervin Duggan invited agencies and advertisers to join PBS in "doing well by doing good." Backing a PBS program, he said, "sends the distinctive and unmistakable message: 'We care about quality.'"

Ad people caught the spin.

"This year they're saying, 'We're really in the same league as the networks--we have our act together now," said Linda B. Staniar, senior v.p. of corporate communications at New York Life, a fourth-year backer of the NewsHour.

"What we have here is the commercialization of PBS," commented Andrew Pappalardo, broadcast supervisor for network TV at Young & Rubicam New York, and he seemed to mean that as a compliment.

His client, Patrick Stasolla, director of advertising services at International Home Foods, saw that PBS is "more receptive to use of a more commercial message," making it a "strong business decision" to back PBS kid shows on behalf of Chef Boyardee.

Creative elbow-room

Some of the ad people were perceiving bigger changes in PBS policy than actually have occurred recently because they were operating with out-of-date notions about public TV's rules, said Jan Wilson.

But PBS does have a little more freedom for them. Attendees received a pocketpiece listing these guidelines:

A single product may be shown and mentioned in audio, and up to three product lines or target markets may be mentioned.

People representing potential customers may be shown, but not with a product. This gives sponsors the option of using selected footage from regular commercials. Celebrities or spokespeople can be heard but not shown, though a corporate officer may be shown and heard if speaking about public TV sponsorship. Mascots can be shown.

Slogans can be used if they avoid calls to action and other features prohibited by the FCC.

Music without lyrics can be used, and sounds if they are not product sounds.

One phone number or web address can be shown, but not with a suggestion that viewers use it.

PBS also had real news for the ad people: the PBS Sponsorship Group, its new joint sales operation with major producing stations WNET, WGBH, KCET and WETA.

Soon after the luncheon each attendee was to hear from an assigned sales rep from the sponsorship group, made up of the four stations' combined sales staffs.

"We're doing what cable has done to us for 15 years," predicted PBS Senior Vice President Jon Abbott, clearly jazzed by the plan. The coordinated sales team of 28 people, including 16 salespeople, would be more effective and reach four times as many underwriting prospects as four separate station teams of the same total size, he said.

The group also can offer custom-designed bundles of spots from a broader portfolio of programs. KCET had already arranged such a package buy for Chef Boyardee, including spots with Barney & Friends as well as its own production, Puzzle Place.

As attendees left the luncheon, they were given a catalog of 54 programs, mostly seeking national underwriters, though Shari Lewis's new Charlie Horse Music Pizza was listed as already sold out for next year, dammit!

What Yanni goes for

The catalog estimated audiences in most cases: 7 million viewers a week with Wishbone, 5.7 million with Frontline, and 2.6 million with American Masters, for instance. PBS also listed prices for underwriting some programs. For Yanni's Taj Mahal special in December, with its expected audience of 3 million households: $240,000 (partial underwriter) to $715,000 (sole underwriter).

The portfolio of programs will include output of the four collaborating stations as well as PBS acquisitions. Until now, underwriting slots around National Geographic docs and other acquired programs remained unsold inventory because there was no station trying to sell it, Abbott said. As for programs from other producers, the group will try to work out commission arrangements, he added.

The group won't be the only pubcasters out there hunting for underwriters, however. Unaffiliated stations will be on the prowl as well as private rep firms like Keith Thompson's Public Broadcast Marketing, which sells multimarket packages of local spots. And public TV soon may have another new multimarket rep firm: Pacific Mountain Network may invest its reserves in a new partnership with Bob Williams, founder of the spot sales firm National Cable Communications.

The rest of PBS's message was on the screen: dizzying reels of clips from public TV programs. From the recent past: Moll Flanders, "Riverdance" and "Vote for Me," among others. From the near future: Ken Burns' Lewis & Clark, Sister Wendy's Story of Painting, Frontline's series on early Christianity, American Masters bios of Frank Sinatra, Woody Allen and Lucille Ball, and American Experience profiles of Truman and Reagan.

Staniar, from New York Life, was delighted by the clip reel, but that didn't mean the ad people would buy everything. "You see it on PBS, and you wish you could buy it," she said. But the price is high for the number of viewers. "You aren't getting quantity, but boy do you get quality."

Audience quality, she meant. "One of the things that hit me again is the quality of the audience and the target markets that look at PBS. You can't find them anyplace else."


To Current's home page

Later news: Former cable ad entrepreneur opens rep firm to sell regional and national underwriting spots for stations; PBS Sponsorship Group will compete in spot sales.

Current Briefing on commercialism and public broadcasting.


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