Stations may love dino dollars, but parents are angry at pitching

Originally published in Current, March 29, 1993

Public television's reputation for exemplary children's programming took a hit in the press this month. The Wall Street Journal on March 19 reported that parents and kidvid advocates are angry about PTV stations pitching Barney & Friends during pledge drives--especially the way Barney dolls and videotapes are presented as premiums. [Public TV later developed new guidelines to govern pledging near children's programs.]

"The way they display the products, it almost does look like a commercial," said Kathryn Montgomery, codirector of the Center for Media Education, a Washington-based advocacy group. "From a kids' point-of-view, it must look like a commercial."

And at least two parents were angry enough about Barney's pledging to complain to the Federal Communications Commission. Barbara Kreisman, FCC spokesperson on children's television, said she believed that both complaints had been directed at New Hampshire PTV. The commission is evaluating whether the complaints can be "resolved, based on what we have before us," or whether the agency must "go back to the licensee and get their side of what happened."

The agency also is considering whether rules over the placement and design of commercials targeting children under 12 apply to public broadcasting. Those rules ban ads for program-related products from airing next to or within the program itself and, under the recently enacted Children's Television Act, ban hosts from selling such products. Kreisman could not predict how long the FCC would take to complete this evaluation.

Bring Barney into your home

The FCC has not notified New Hampshire PTV about the complaints, although the state network did receive a viewer's carbon-copied letter to the agency dated Dec. 7, according to spokeswoman Dorothy Meneghin. An angry father complained in the letter that, after watching Barney during New Hampshire PTV's pledge drive, his son believed that the real Barney would be sent to his home if his dad gave money to the station.

When offering Barney dolls as "a thank you," Meneghin said, "we were very, very careful about talking adult-to-adult." New Hampshire PTV participated in the national Barney pledge marathon on March 7, and had not received any complaints about pitching the show then.

WNET, New York, did hear from angry viewers about the Barney pledge marathon--20 of them. "We reach such a wide audience that 20 people, in the scheme of things, is nothing," said spokeswoman Lilli Root. WNET ran the Barney marathon three times, and got about 2,536 pledges totalling $172,208.

"Public television is saying, 'We're not getting any complaints,' but I've heard a lot of people complaining," especially parents, said Montgomery. "Of course, we all want to see public TV supported, but I think they're going a little bit too far with 6- to 7-minute breaks and the parading of these products with children."

Although PBS is monitoring the controversy "very, very closely and carefully," according to Jim Scalem, PBS v.p. of fundraising programs, "we feel our guidelines about pledging children's programs are good." Unless a "whole new system" of funding kidvid is created, he said, "This is the way we exist."



"Commercialization of public television's
educational programming must be resisted,"
the Twentieth Century Fund task force admonished
after Barneygate hit the newspapers.
The report elaborated: "the promotion of toys
as 'premiums' to children ... is not an appropriate activity
for public television."

Still later news
Pledge producers, task force responding to 'Barneygate'

Originally published in Current, Sept. 6, 1993
By Karen Everhart Bedford

Responding to the "Barneygate" controversy from the March public TV pledge drive, local stations across the system have reexamined their fundraising practices around children's programs, just in time for the August drive.

A 10-member PBS task force charged with examining local pledging made several specific suggestions in July about the design of pledge breaks and the targets of the pitch messages.

The most visible outcome of the heightened scrutiny of kidvid pledging, however, was PBS's decision not to re-up the rights to repeat the "Barney Marathon."

That pledge special, aired in March, was largely responsible for what Jim Scalem, PBS v.p. of fundraising programs, described as the "peak" of the purple dino's pledge performance. But it also drew the ire of adults in some markets, and set keyboards aclicking at the Wall Street Journal, which reported that parents were exasperated with PTV kidvid pledging.

"It was just a question of, 'let's don't do this -- we don't need to do this,' " KSPS Development Director Patty Starkey, chairman of the PBS Development Advisory Committee, said of the decision not to redistribute the special.

For August, PBS distributed a new package of pledge messages excerpted from the marathon. Those breaks, offered to "complement what stations were doing locally," featured host Patrice Pascual and omitted "anything that involved Barney," said Jon Abbott, senior v.p. of development at PBS.

PBS development staffers and members of the task force are hoping to hear what station people think about the recommendations and how they worked or didn't work for stations during the PBS Development Conference in Tucson this week. The conference schedule includes a concurrent session at noon Sept. 11 as an opportunity to respond to the task force's work.

No cuddling

Local evaluations meanwhile have prompted some changes in the August pledge breaks. At WVIZ, Cleveland, pledge producers extended the wait between the program and premium offer, according to Development Director Kent Geist, who chaired the PBS task force.

At WNIN in Evansville, Ind., staff and pledge producers paid special attention to creating "barriers" between images of program characters and premium offers, said President David Dial, another member of the task force. Talent was weren't allowed to cuddle Barney dolls, which instead were displayed on video of a "stark picture of Barney sitting in front of a blue background," said Dial.

"It's certainly been a good exercise for the staff," he said. "It made them think about what we're doing around kid's programs, which is the most important programming on our air." Dial reported no change in the proceeds of pledging around Barney & Friends during August, but said the station benefitted from its revised practices. "We felt a greater sense of trust because of the way we responded to this."

Do's and don'ts

One of the golden rules of pledging around children's programming has been to pitch to adults in the audience, not children. Indeed, the first of six recommendations to stations was that on-air talent repeatedly announce that their fundraising message is for adults. Stations were asked "to continue the common practice of asking that adults come to the television set at the beginning of each pledge break" in a July 19 DACs message from Abbott, Scalem and Geist.

Other recommendations included: waiting at least 60 seconds at the beginning of each pledge break before offering premiums; not combining host appearances with premium offers; not intercutting footage from children's programs with premium offers; not showing children playing with products being offered as premiums; and not using promotional messages in which kidvid characters ask parents to contribute to public TV.

Members of the task force consistently emphasized that most stations already adhered to these practices. But the "major impact" of the panel's work was "having everyone go back and revisit what they were doing," said Geist.

While the financial implications of the effort will not become clear for a few more on-air pledge cycles, Scalem said preliminary receipts from pledging around Barney & Friends last month were down between 50 to 70 percent from March.

He did not think that any change in stations' kidvid pledge practices "had much to do with Barney's success as a pledge vehicle." Contributing factors to the decline in dino-related pledge receipts last month, he speculated, may have been overexposure of the first 30 episodes of Barney & Friends, negative publicity about Barney and related merchandise, and the smaller number of stations that air pledge drives, particularly in primetime. Of all of those possibilities, he was most skeptical of the first.

"It remains to be seen how it will do in December," said Scalem, when 18 new Barney programs will be available to stations. Results from "just one pledge," he added, are inconclusive.

Issue in the media

From what he could assess, Abbott said, the hullabaloo in March started with "a handful of viewers who raised questions." But when Barney pledging became "an issue in the media, that then got people's attention."

With the media raising questions, Abbott explained, "we wanted to make sure that our policies were very clear."

Public TV's effort to "get out ahead" of the controversy and "make sure the signals were right in every community," as Abbott put it, came in the nick of time. Just as the task force sent its DACs to stations, a report issued by the Twentieth Century Fund in July noted "concern" about "recent efforts by public television to offer children toys as 'premiums' during on-air pledge drives."

Among the recommendations developed by a Twentieth Century Fund task force, which was made up of distinguished people who no doubt read the Wall Street Journal, was the admonition: "Commercialization of public television's educational programming must be resisted." The fund report elaborated: "the promotion of toys as 'premiums' to children ... is not an appropriate activity for public television."

Abbott said he was "excited" to see "how the community of stations came together ... in making sure that their goals and mission are well communicated to parents."

What he's heard from stations about the effort so far indicates that "we've pretty much done the work," said Abbott. "We definitely want to hear from stations on whether they think we ought to do more."



To Current's home page

Current Briefing: Kidvid that's good for kids?

Later news: Parents may have thought Barney was being overcommercialized, but other observers, including Sen. Bob Dole, argued that PBS wasn't making enough money off him.


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