Why does PBS have commercials?
March 8, 2005 4:38 PM   Subscribe

Is public broadcasting really public if it has commercials? How and why did this happen?
posted by swift to Media & Arts (19 answers total)
PBS calls its sponsors underwriters, not advertisers. The distinction is in the amount of funding. Public broadcasting receives some federal funding (through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting). Pledge drives and memberships from "viewers like you" help kick in a little bit. Corporate cash fills the void left when these two sources don't flow as fast as they should.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 4:43 PM on March 8, 2005

What ads are you talking about? Certainly not the beg-a-thons, right? Do you mean the "special thanks to" section at the beginning of certain programs? Considering that Ford or the Arthur Whatever Foundation's funding is what makes a lot of the programs possible, I don't think it's too much to ask that they get some name recognition at the start of a program.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:44 PM on March 8, 2005

I think what classifies it as public television is the federal funding, not the lack of commercials (although there aren't really any on there...).
posted by rooftop secrets at 4:45 PM on March 8, 2005

In this case, "public" is a function of ownership, not of funding. The CBC is public and has commercials on most of its TV programs (not so radio, which is commercial-free outside of elections).
posted by mcwetboy at 4:56 PM on March 8, 2005

The line was crossed for me when they started mentioning the titles of specific books in the sponsorship. "Sponsored by Random House, publishers of the new book How to Vacuum your Cat, in bookstores today".
posted by Nelson at 5:12 PM on March 8, 2005

Civil_Disobedient, I'd say the ads in question would be the 30 second Anderson Windows spots before "This Old House", and such. Real ads, not foundations or logos.
posted by smackfu at 5:18 PM on March 8, 2005

On Channel 13 in NY, I've been seeing lots of actual long commercials between programs, sometimes even in the middle of programs. I guess I'm having a hard time understanding how public tv, which I thought was an alternative to advertising-supported channels partly because it avoids a lot of the problems with being beholden to advertisers, can serve the public good with such strong corporate ties.

It was almost as if a law changed, or there was some other sudden sea change, to cause this. I'm just wondering what the hell happened.
posted by swift at 5:33 PM on March 8, 2005

I'm a fan. I'm in China but listen to WNYC-AM almost constantly.

Hasn't someone done a study or supposed that National Public Radio could survive, (prosper), without federal funding? Does federal funding keep them along the path they are currently on? Would there be a huge transformation if the federal funding dried up?

I can't understand why I would give to a beg-a-thon, (very nice C_D), when I already give through tax subsidies. I can appreciate the great product but don't appreciate the attempt at guilt implied double-dipping.

Do I not understand the system?
posted by geekyguy at 5:37 PM on March 8, 2005

sometimes even in the middle of programs

That's really crossing the line. Commercials nearly drove my mother fom TV entirely; she couldn't stand having dramatic tension broken every 8 minutes.

That said, WXXI in Rochester, NY has never shown a commercial during a program to my knowledge; just the aforementioned promos after "This Old House," which are short enough for my tastes.
posted by NickDouglas at 5:49 PM on March 8, 2005

According to this article, PBS allows 15 second spots for premier advertisers and is looking to expand the rules for 30 second spots. They also link to the PBS policy in question.

I guess the standards have relaxed dramatically over the years, with little outcry from the public. I agree - it starts making PBS look like every other channel.
posted by O9scar at 5:51 PM on March 8, 2005

Having worked for a sponsor, PBS still makes a distinction between a spot giving credit to a sponsor and a full blown commercial. There can be intense negotiations over the exact content of the spot, with the sponsor attempting to gain maximum commercial exposure and PBS attempting to retain some sense of dignity. Ideally, PBS wants the sponsor to just say its corporate name and perhaps general line of business while the sponsor may want to get in mention of specific products ("makers of Acme rocket powered roller skates").
posted by caddis at 6:08 PM on March 8, 2005

I have worked in public radio for twenty years, almost twelve of that in underwriting.

First, in the United States, public broadcasting tends to be used broadly to describe NPR and PBS members stations, but there is actually a much wider variety of noncommerical broadcasters including community broadcasters who do not carry programming from NPR or PBS and religious broadcasters. Noncommercial refers to the type of broadcast license these stations carry, not the source of their funding or even their ownership.

As the name would imply, noncommerical broadcasters are prohibited from airing advertising under Section 399b of the Communications Act. They are, however, allowed to acknowledge contributions under sections 73.503 and 73.621.

All of which is a lot of citation that says in effect, a noncommercial broadcaster can acknowledge businesses that provide money to the station so long as they do not interrupt programming to do so. acknowledgement must identify the underwriter and include a factual description of their goods and services as well as slogans so long as they are not promotional in nature.

The FCC has amended the rules over the year to allow noncommercial broadcasters increasing leeway in the verbiage and visual elements they use in underwriting. In addition as noncommercial broadcasters have sought to increase funding, they have explored how far they can push that verbiage and those visual elements. This has generally been done with at least informal consultation with the FCC and with an eye towards the effect on viewership and listenership, but it remains one of the most contentious issues within the industry.

As for the overall funding picture, in 2002 (last time I looked carefully) membership revenues accounted for the majority of revenues at around twenty-five percent. Underwriting came in around fourth at fifteen percent. Federal funding through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is actually much less than many people assume, trailing state dollars.

As to whether it is really public or not I think is up to the public. They are still the majority source of our funding, but audience research tells us that viewers and listeners are aware of the increasing role of underwriting. Their reactions, however, seem mixed. Some research has identified "underwriting anxiety," other research says they are not concerned.

For my own part, I have been watching and listening since I was a child and have made work for my entire professional life and all I have to say is it sure looks and sounds a lot more commercial than it used to.
posted by LinnTate at 7:04 PM on March 8, 2005

How and why did this happen?
"In March 1984, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) officially 'relaxed' the noncommercial policy to allow public broadcasters to expand or 'enhance' the scope of donor and underwriter 'acknowledgements' to include such things as 'value-neutral descriptions of a product line or service,' and corporate logos or slogans which 'identify and do not promote'"
You might say that the ads you hear on public television and radio are not value-neutral, and do promote; I'd agree with you.
Why is this happening more lately? (1) Because money talks, and (2) the people who enforce the rules, and judge whether the ads/underwriting acknowledgements cross the line, tend to think commercialization and the free market are a good thing.
Here's info on how public broadcasting listeners and viewers felt about it back in 1997. Here's PBS defending the ads/underwriting spots in children's TV programming.
For commercial-less radio, try a Pacifica station. (People complain that NPR is left-wing; Pacifica actually is left-wing.) In the SF Bay Area, we've got 2 major NPR stations, KALW and KQED. I send my money to KALW because I hear far fewer ads on their station, probably because they get much more support from listeners than from corporations.
posted by mistersix at 7:33 PM on March 8, 2005

There is a letter to the Editor in the New York Times by the VP Media Relations at PBS concerning this issue. I don't know how that squares with what you say you've experienced. Maybe local PBS affiliates are operating under different broadcast license terms?
posted by McGuillicuddy at 5:21 AM on March 9, 2005

What makes me crazier than the commercial near-ads are incredibly repeated ads for local cultural events and the internal advertising--the spots that tell me how wonderful the NPR and BBC shows are. If I'm not smart enough to tell whether the shows are good, I'm not smart enough to be listening to NPR.

My station is WHYY.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 5:24 AM on March 9, 2005

I was going to bring up what mistersix mentioned about "value-neutral" underwriting. I recall that when I worked in college radio we were allowed to take underwriting so long as it didn't mention prices or promote the product/service in any way (i.e. "best oranges in town!").

I always assumed this was the case with public television as well, and I have to say I don't recall seeing any undewriting that clearly ran afoul of this policy. That said, these days "regular" advertising very often eschews promotional spots in favor of mere brand awareness, which I suspect is why the spots on PBS look so much like the spots on commercial television.
posted by schoolgirl report at 5:40 AM on March 9, 2005

I worked in a non-profit college radio station, our ads were basically the same thing. They were called underwriting and, to maintain our non-profit status, had to follow strict guidelines.
The big thing is you can mention who you are and what you do, but you can't use a lot of adjectives and opinion statements. You can say "Bob's restaurant, serving Jamaican food on Main St since 1980," but not "Bob's restaurant, home of the best Jamaican food in town!" No one will argue that, say, ING has investment products. They do. However, they can't advertise as the best place to invest, the "most trusted," etc.
posted by Kellydamnit at 5:54 AM on March 9, 2005

Former college radio DJ myself. The key is you cant use a 'call to action' that is you can say

'Random House, publishers of X'

but you can say

'Come to Barnes and Noble on 18th Street and Get your copy of Book X.'

When you think about it, its all those commands that really disrupt you the most... While the distinction can get blurred in terms of the amount of messages, and the impact on you as a listener there's no comparision.
posted by brucec at 1:17 PM on March 11, 2005

WNYC-AM no longer gets a subsidy from the City of New York (at least not a significant one) and relies on member dollars and underwriting to survive.
posted by brucec at 1:19 PM on March 11, 2005

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