Burns pipeline to pump despite GM withdrawal

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Ken Burns will proceed with his films as planned despite General Motors’ withdrawal as a major sponsor, according to Washington’s WETA, Burns’ co-production partner.

The producer and WETA knew more than a year ago that the struggling automaker would not renew its contract, which covered about 35 percent of Burns’ production budgets.

“We expected GM to leave after their 10-year commitment was over this year,” says David Thompson, v.p. of cultural programming at WETA. Sponsorship commitments of such length are extraordinary these days, he notes.

Burns’ current projects include not only the six-part, 12-hour series The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, which is largely complete and debuts Sept. 27 on PBS stations, but also Tenth Inning, a continuation of his 2003 epic Baseball, scheduled for spring 2010; Prohibition, scheduled for fall 2011; and a relatively contemporary doc, Central Park 5 (w.t.), about a 1989 attack on a jogger in New York City, scheduled for fall 2012. Those three docs are almost fully funded, and GM has already provided funds for Prohibition, says Mary Stewart, v.p. of external relations at WETA.

Several other films are still in fundraising stages, but none will have to be postponed, Stewart predicts. The films: The Age of the Roosevelts (w.t.), The Dust Bowl (w.t.) and Vietnam, which is slated for 2015.

All of Burns’ future projects are part of his January 2007 deal with PBS, in which he agreed that his films—at least three major series and two or three shorter projects—would air exclusively on pubTV.

The Detroit News reported March 9 that GM, a major Burns funder since his Civil War series in 1990, wouldn’t renew its most recent 10-year contract with the star producer.

Burns praised GM for “demonstrating a remarkable corporate citizenship” in his remarks at a premiere screening of The National Parks at the U.S. Capitol, four days before the company’s withdrawal was reported.

An even longer pubTV sponsorship ended in 2004 when ExxonMobil withdrew funding for Masterpiece Theatre after more than 30 years of support, and public broadcasting has kept the series afloat by redirecting funds from other sources, including federal funds allocated by CPB.

With the economy tanking and national corporate underwriting for public TV down in general over the last eight years, the days are gone when sponsors would practically throw money at Burns, Thompson says.

A team of development execs from WETA and Florentine Films, Burns’ production company, are courting new corporate backers for future projects. They also hope for aid from foundations such as the Pew Charitable Trusts and Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, though the economic crisis has hit all foundation portfolios, Thompson says. The key is to match film topics with foundations’ goals and interests, he says.

All of pubTV’s national producers have been worried about dwindling corporate support since long before the economy tanked, Thompson says. Between 2003 and 2007, corporate support for the best-known PBS “icon” series dropped 40 percent (Current, Oct. 14, 2008).

Keeping the PBS schedule funded

PBS has stepped in to help fund some of these series, which leaves less money for new projects. Thompson says PBS and CPB have no plans to provide Burns with extra funds to offset the loss of GM’s sponsorship.

Burns isn’t the only big producer losing sponsors. WGBH landed Pfizer Inc. as a funder of Nova scienceNow in fiscal year 2008 but recently learned that the pharmaceutical giant won’t be renewing its sponsorship, according to Suzanne Zellner, v.p. of corporate sponsorship. The corporation plans extensive layoffs as it consolidates with Wyeth Pharmaceuticals.

To save money, national producers are increasingly looking to co-produce with other stations, producers and international networks, says Dalton Delan, chief programming officer at WETA. In the past year WETA has been talking with American Masters Executive Producer Susan Lacy about sharing costs by bringing three of the Washington station’s cultural projects into the WNET-based series of artist profiles. If they reach agreement, American Masters could provide finishing funds, editorial assistance and other services, Delan says.

WGBH has been building a diverse pool of underwriters from various business sectors to help keep sponsorship stable in an unpredictable marketplace, says Zellner. However, this pool includes no financial companies.

To combat the systemwide fall-off in national underwriting, many pubTV national underwriting execs, including Zellner, have been pushing for tactics that match the rest of the marketplace, such as offering shorter sponsorship deals. WGBH’s national underwriting group works to get funders’ spots on and off the air on the sponsors’ preferred schedules and to offer shorter flights so companies can reach unduplicated audiences when they need to, Zellner says.

For example, WGBH—in partnership with WNET—has sold Disney a four-week sponsorship for Nova, Frontline and Nature in April. The entertainment behemoth will promote a new movie.

WETA’s Thompson hopes his fundraising team’s experience in the trenches of pubTV fundraising will pay off for Burns. “The good news is we’ve been facing this corporate challenge for a while now,” he says. “I like to think we’re tough about it and resourceful.”

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