Presidential sparring puts pubcasting in political bull’s-eye

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GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s pledge to defund PBS, which he reiterated during the Oct. 3 televised presidential debate, set off a flurry of advocacy activity by pubcasters working at both the national and local levels.

PBS had already spent several months developing its site, trumpeting the importance of public TV, and sped up its launch to the day after the debate. Stations sprung into action to alert their viewers and listeners, sending waves of them to the grassroots-advocacy 170 Million Americans website — which has since garnered 50,000 new fans.

“Thousands of people are coming to our aid,” particularly on Twitter and Facebook, said Pat Butler, president of the Association of Public Television Stations advocacy organization. The supporters include everyone from A-list entertainers such as Ashley Judd and to “ordinary moms who value our services — and teachers, and police officers,” Butler said. “It’s very heartwarming. And it hasn’t stopped. Gov. Romney lit a candle and started a forest fire of support. That feels pretty good.”

The spark came in response to a question about how to tackle the federal debt. “I like PBS, I love Big Bird,” Romney said. But he added, “I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for.”

The former Massachusetts governor had repeatedly railed against federal aid to the system throughout his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, but this time he made the comment before a television and online audience of a reported 73 million viewers.

Gov. Romney “has gotten this PBS talking point into his head and can’t get it out,” Butler said. “He’s using it with alarming frequency.”

During the Oct. 16 town-hall debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., President Obama brought up Romney’s pledge again, while chiding his opponent for the lack of details in his plan to cut taxes without raising the deficit. “We haven’t heard from the governor any specifics,” Obama said, “beyond Big Bird and eliminating funding for Planned Parenthood, in terms of how he pays for that.”

The Obama campaign also made political hay with Romney’s Big Bird statement in a 31-second online ad produced after the first debate. The spot criticizes Romney for targeting Big Bird, not big money. “[I]t’s not Wall Street you have to worry about, it’s Sesame Street,” the voiceover announcer says. The ad goes on to compare Big Bird to disgraced financiers, including Bernie Madoff.

Sesame Workshop, which owns the Sesame Street character, issued a statement Oct. 9 asserting that it had “approved no campaign ads, and, as is our general practice, [we] have requested that the ad be taken down.”

As of Oct. 18 the ad was still online and had received 3.3 million views. “Our legal department is reviewing our options,” said Jodi Lefkowitz, Sesame Workshop spokesperson.

The partisan rhetoric puts public broadcasting back into the political fray for the second consecutive national election cycle — only this time PBS is being played by both parties to rouse their supporters. It’s a tricky situation for the field, especially given how political attacks sharpened on NPR and public broadcasting after the 2010 midterm elections.

Pubcasters, who historically relied on strong bipartisan support in Congress, continue to strive for nonpartisanship in advocating on their own behalf. Yet the stakes have been raised unlike ever before in the debate over government spending and tax-based support for CPB.

“We’re trying to play this straight, right down the middle, and use this as a teachable moment,” Butler said. “We’re very uncomfortable to have become a significant political issue.”

APTS has made “substantial progress” in talks with Romney’s policy people and other campaign staff, Butler said. “That’s not to say we’ve changed their minds, but they do understand our minds. It’s a matter of pounding the rock and making sure that if we ever get the opportunity to speak with Gov. Romney, we can make our case directly.”

In the right place at the right time, online

PBS had begun work on its site over the summer, said spokesperson Jan McNamara, with an aim to launch sometime in October. The site wasn’t conceived in reaction to Romney’s ongoing pokes at pubcasting, McNamara said, but rather to provide a centralized source for facts about PBS and its member stations.

Unlike, co-managed by APTS and NPR, which is a call-to-action site that links supporters with Congress, is an educational resource for stations and the public, she said. Stations had long wanted one web-based resource where PBS could tell its story.

PBS presented the site to station managers during a round-robin meeting at PBS headquarters on Oct. 3. “Their reaction to the site was extremely positive,” McNamara said. Following the presidential debate that night, “the media were suddenly very interested in PBS’s funding. Given this, and the positive feedback we heard from stations, we went live on Oct. 4.”

The straightforward, graphically simple site offers downloadable information for communities, teachers, and kids and parents. A sample factoid: “Watched on TV by 236 million Americans annually. In a month, Americans stream 145 million videos on PBS’s Web and mobile platforms.”

It’s housed as a microsite on the platform, “which means it can be updated and localized easily on an ongoing basis,” McNamara said. “Stations can use the data collected there, or simply link to it, depending on their individual goals and communication plans.” As of the morning of Oct. 16, had received 38,000 unique visitors and more than 51,000 page views.

The site also houses testimonials in which viewers talk about how their lives have been affected by PBS programs. In one video, a man living in rural Montana describes how he discovered information about his wife’s Alzheimer’s disease through his local member station.

Those personal testimonials are exactly what public broadcasting needs to strengthen its case for continued federal support, said Josh Stearns, journalism and public media campaign director at media-reform nonprofit Free Press.

Members of Congress should be “surrounded by first-person accounts” of how necessary public broadcasting is, he said. “This is not about taking a political position, but building relationships and gaining champions.”

“We didn’t want to exploit this situation”

KQED already counts 18 of the 19 members of Congress that represent the Bay Area as strong supporters, said Michael Lupetin, station vice president, marketing and brand. Even before the Oct. 3 debate had ended, KQED staffers were calling and texting one another, brainstorming ways to take advantage of the station’s political backing while still getting the word out about the need for funding vigilance.

They knew they wanted to “Save Big Bird!” And they knew this campaign would have a limited run: from Thursday, Oct. 4, until 11 a.m. Monday, Oct. 8. “Then we stopped, and it was back to business as usual,” Lupetin said.

“We needed not only to get the message out there right away,” said Scott Walton, communications director, “but also to respect the people who were already supportive. We didn’t want to exploit this situation.”

KQED wanted to drive fans to the 170 Million Americans site, broadcasting 30- and 60-second promo spots provided by APTS, placing banner ads on the KQED website, and posting on Facebook and Twitter. “By 11 a.m. Pacific on Thursday, that was all in rotation,” Lupetin said.

The station also sent an email blast to its list of 230,000-plus supporters, requesting that they thank members of Congress for their ongoing support. The emails took what Lupetin called “a Dragnet approach: ‘Just the facts, ma’am,’” with data on the cost and value of programming.

That generated 5,000 click-throughs to the 170 Million Americans site and close to 4,000 hits on the station’s own donation page, with 447 actual contributions — even though the station was not specifically asking for cash, Lupetin noted.

KQED’s Facebook post of an infographic supplied by ValuePBS got 6,716 views, 617 likes, and 321 shares. Its tweet of that infographic received 25 times reach of an average tweet by the station, with 1,659 clicks and 104 retweets, Lupetin said.

PBS doesn’t know how many stations used the materials created for its new campaign, McNamara said, “but judging from what we observed across social media channels, stations were extraordinarily helpful in promoting”

Other stations also continued to funnel visitors to 170 Million. Through its email campaign, WNET sent 16,000 pledges of support to the site — with 66 percent of those also opting to sign up for WNET program updates, said Kellie Specter, WNET spokesperson.

The advocacy work will continue beyond campaign season, regardless of the outcome of the presidential election. And some political strategists see a potential upside to the candidates’ sparring over pubcasting’s federal funding.

“The more the issue of public broadcasting funding gets elevated,” said John Lawson, former APTS president, “the harder it will be to quietly kill it.”

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