PBS loses biggest underwriter as it considers 30-second credits

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ExxonMobil will stop underwriting Masterpiece Theatre after spring
2004, the oil company announced Dec. 13. It has spent more than
$250 million on MT and other PBS programs over 32 years. In recent
years, the company has spent about $10 million a year, providing full
funding for the drama series, says Jeanne Hopkins, v.p. of communications
at WGBH, which packages the series.

For years before merging with Exxon, Mobil had also supported another series
of largely British dramas, Mystery!, but Mobil had dropped funding
of the sister series Mystery! several years ago.

As WGBH and its benefactor were preparing press releases Dec. 13,
the PBS Board was meeting by phone to consider offering 30-second underwriting
credits to ExxonMobil and other big underwriters that asked for more airtime
in exchange for their donations. The board postponed its decision until
it meets in person at the end of January.

After opposing 30-second spots for years, PBS is headed toward permitting
them because producers are finding it tough to sign corporate underwriters.
WGBH, for instance, would ordinarily have two underwriters apiece for
Nova, Antiques Roadshow and Mystery!, but has only one each,
Hopkins says. Underwriting execs say corporations have redirected their
ad budgets to ads that move products rather than soft-sell promos intended
to burnish corporate images.

“We thank ExxonMobil for underwriting more than 30 years of great
drama,” WGBH President Henry Becton said in a release.

Earlier story
Mobil hangs on to Masterpiece but drops Mystery!

Originally published in Current,
May 15, 1995

Mobil Corp. is extending its funding of Masterpiece Theatre through
1999 but is saying goodbye to Mystery! as underwriter after the
1995-96 season. WGBH in Boston packages both popular programs. Mobil,
sole supporter of both shows since their inception, announced the changes

The new contract is worth $27 million over three years, said Mobil media
relations adviser Gail Campbell Woolley. PBS will provide partial interim
funding for Mystery! over the next two years, with hopes that new
corporate funders will join PBS for the 1996-97 season. Mobil’s decision
to pull out of Mystery! “speaks to the fragility of public
television, that the longest and strongest of underwriters has its own
financial realities,” said Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of both
shows for WGBH.

“Mobil’s generous and long support of these two programs has been
looked to as a paragon of how a new public television could be, with corporate
underwriters dropping into place if federal funding ceases. For those
who think there are five or 10 Mobils waiting in the wings, that just
isn’t the case.”

Mobil announced earlier this month it was eliminating 1,250 jobs as part
of a major restructuring, but Woolley refused to describe dropping Mystery!
as a cost-cutting measure. She said the corporation has been reviewing
all programming support since a public relations restructuring in February.
Aside from the two public TV shows, Mobil underwrites coverage of some
track and field events. It recently dropped support of the Cotton Bowl,
but Woolley said that was because the event was no longer part of the
Southwest Conference.

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