A movement among big-market stations to accept 30-second underwriting spots is turning up the heat on PBS to resolve longstanding discrepancies between national underwriting policies and more permissive practices at local stations.
Some say six of the top ten stations are accepting the longer spots; others count 19 of the top 20. Among the stations now accepting 30-second underwriting messages are WNET, New York; KCET, Los Angeles; KQED, San Francisco; WCET, Cincinnati; WTVS, Detroit, and KRMA, Denver.
The national underwriting that directly supports production of national programs has slipped in recent years, while local stations’ spot sales have grown–probably surpassing the total for national underwriting in recent years.
“We can reach 80 percent of the U.S. population with 30-second messages on public television today,” said Keith Thompson, president of Public Broadcast Marketing, a firm that specializes in spot sales on public radio and TV stations. He contends–although others are skeptical–that even longer, 60-second spots are available on stations reaching 40 percent of the nation.
Underwriting standards have been a contentious issue within the fractious public TV “family” since the 1980s, when a limited experiment with advertising prompted the FCC to allow “enhanced underwriting” on public TV stations. The change was welcomed by some stations seeking corporate aid. But PBS and most of its member stations retained stricter standards, and a philosophical rift deepened within the industry.
In 1992, a precipitous 13.5 percent drop in corporate support for national programs forced an industry-wide reexamination of underwriting practices. PBS moved to streamline its own underwriting rules and enforce station compliance with its stricter standards. A proposal to fine stations exceeding PBS’s 15-second limit on underwriting spots prompted a bitter dispute that ended when PBS dropped the proposal and declared an uneasy truce over the issue.
The system must confront the gap between local practice and national standards, PBS President Ervin Duggan said in a recent interview. He described it as a “major item on the agenda for public television in 1997.”
“All over the place”
Independent nonprofit “community” licensees, one of the most powerful affinity groupings in public TV, are leading the trend toward longer underwriter credits.
Federal aid to the field is declining, and each station has its own unique set of funding challenges. San Francisco’s KQED, for example, is saddled with massive debts. In Los Angeles, KCET’s income from new members dropped 26 percent in 1995. WNET’s membership and underwriting revenues are flat.
“There isn’t much government money in those stations,” explains Rob Gardiner, president of Maine Public Broadcasting. “Government money is one of the biggest deterrents to commercialism.”
“They’re simply trying to stabilize their income base by not taking for granted that federal funding will continue to be there,” comments Hal Bouton, president of WTVI, Charlotte, and an advocate for a more commercial approach.
Bouton and others also say that their acceptance of longer spots reflects the realities of the media environment. Most underwriters no longer back public TV programs for philanthropic reasons, and those that only want to reach PBS’s demographic can buy time on any of the cable clone channels that accept full advertising, Bouton notes.
“Underwriters were looking for a chance to get more of their message out,” explains Bill Baker, president of WNET. “They want something for their money.
Baker contends the debate over 30-second spots is misplaced. “Length is more of a red herring than content.” Just because an underwriter’s message is 15 seconds long doesn’t make it acceptable. “There’s so much squeezed into 15 seconds, it makes it seem commercial, even if it isn’t.”
James Morgese, president of KRMA, Denver, recently conducted an unscientific survey of stations known to have gone “beyond the traditional approach” in underwriting practices. He spoke with 11 licensees about their experiences with looser rules.
“The amount of revenue to be realized varied dramatically from market to market,” Morgese said. “Some stations are doing well with it, and other stations think they’re doing well, but they [previously] may have been underperforming with underwriting and this is a way to supplement that income.” The surveyed stations also reported that their new approach to underwriting had “no noticeable effect on membership.”
Morgese found wide variations in the stations’ underwriting practices. “Many have special policies for children’s and daytime programming.” Some stations allow only one 30-second spot to air per break, others will load the break with multiple spots. “They’re all over the place.”
KCET started accepting 30’s last year and reported revenue of $500,000 from them. KQED grossed slightly more last year and expects to bring in $770,000 from them this year. In St. Louis, KETC estimates that half of its $1.4 million in underwriting revenue comes from 30-second spots, according to Mike Hardgrove, president.
“We have gotten, for the most part, a fairly understanding reaction,” says Barbara Goen, KCET spokeswoman. “What our marketplace has told us from research is that as long as we don’t interrupt programs, as long as we don’t pitch a product in a commercial television manner, they understand the need for looking at additional ways of raising revenue.”
American Express takes a trip
Opposition to more ad-like underwriting comes from many quarters–university licensees and state networks, many of which are prohibited from airing spots that resemble commercials; small-market stations whose areas lack the economic base to pursue corporate revenues; and major producers WGBH, Boston, and WETA, Washington, which say the liberalized local standards make it harder for them to attract corporate support to national programs.
“This is undercutting our ability to fund the national program service,” says Henry Becton, president of WGBH. He notes that American Express dropped its support for The American Experience and went to a multimarket, 30-second spot buy. WGBH’s program marketers also find that companies exploring the prospects of public TV underwriting often choose local buys over national underwriting.
“There are a handful of companies who fit the profile of a national corporate underwriter that are doing underwriting in select markets,” says Jeff Epremian, v.p. of program marketing for WETA. “The ability to air a longer message in local markets has accelerated that somewhat. Stations that are getting the local underwriting grants think that’s just fine; I’m sure it’s a trend that they welcome,” he adds. “The long-term effect on producing stations’ ability to deliver programming to them remains to be seen, but there is bound to be an effect.”
Many station execs view the major-market migration to longer spots as unnecessary, and point to their own success at building corporate support with 15-second spots. KUED, in Salt Lake–the 38th largest market in the country–took in close to $1.4 million in corporate support last year following a “conservative interpretation of the PBS guidelines,” according to Fred Esplin, president.
WGBH earns $3 million a year in local corporate support, a 10 percent increase over three years, reports Becton. “We’re doing as well, if not better than stations airing 30-second spots.” Its membership is up 12 percent.
“We are pushing very aggressively to keep our public broadcasting image as different from the other channels as possible in program content and underwriting,” says Gardner. “We have found real success.” The Maine network’s program marketers tell potential underwriters that “it doesn’t serve their purposes to get too commercial-looking because it turns off the viewer.”
In the country’s 75th market, Maine Public Broadcasting will earn $500,000 in underwriting this year. Gardner contends that Maine’s income from underwriting is growing faster than “a lot of stations that are experimenting with 30s.”
Epremian notes that the revenues to be gained by going to longer spots are measurable. “You can add them up. But the losses are difficult to quantify.” Stations stand to lose support from foundations, members and other companies that don’t like the more commercial environment. “Viewers who can no longer distinguish the broadcast service don’t announce that they’ve stopped watching or donating.”
Worries that increasing commercialism will erode public TV’s distinctiveness are deeply held by opponents of longer spots. “Noncommercial television is fundamentally different from commercial TV,” says Tom Howe, g.m. of the UNC-TV network in Chapel Hill. “What makes noncommercial television different is its devotion to providing a service to viewers as opposed to attracting eyeballs. Over time, the more commercial we become, the more that will change our programming practices.”
WNET’s Baker retorts: the system is already preoccupied with ratings, and underwriters aren’t the ones pushing it. “Underwriters accept the audience we have,” says Baker. “Programmers at public TV stations are more audience-driven than mission-driven.”
But UNC-TV, and other state networks like it, bring another dilemma to the debate over underwriting practices. Licensed to a state university and backed with state funds, UNC is legally prohibited from any activities that compete with private business.
“If PBS ran 30-second spots that one would view as a commercial, we could no longer be a PBS member,” explains Howe. He already views many PBS-approved underwriting messages as “very liberal” and says the increased commercialization of public TV in general is an issue that “needs to be resolved.”
Split system, split feed
The $154 million question — representing the total amount of corporate funding for public broadcasting in 1995, the most recent year for which figures are available — is how do you resolve this issue when opposing sides have such basic, philosophical differences?
“I think it’s going to be very difficult,” acknowledges Baker. He and other advocates of the longer spots say that PBS should move to the 30-second standard.
“This question of length is really settled,” says Mike Hardgrove, president of KETC, St. Louis. “It’s done. You’re not going to reverse that.”
Hardgrove and others suggest that PBS accommodate differences within the system by offering two satellite feeds. Stations that air longer credits would air PBS shows with 30-second spots; those that retain the shorter standard would take a feed with 15-second spots.
This proposal has several drawbacks: it would cost up to $2 million annually, according to Becton; and, with the recent death of Telstar 401, PBS currently lacks the satellite capacity.
WETA’s Epremian points to another obstacle. “Where is the airtime going to come from?” If as many as three underwriters receive 30-second credits on national programs, which air along with the longer local credits, stations will have “no time to promote programming or membership, and it may get to a point where it’s hard to distinguish your service from a commercial service.”
“I don’t think the implications have been thought through by everyone.”