PBS to Shorten Time Commitments for Sponsorships
The New York Times
May 7, 2009
COMPANIES will soon be able to sponsor some PBS programs for as little as one week at a time, rather than a full year.
Feeling the pinch of marketing budgets, public television stations are being forced to be more creative when they approach corporate underwriters. This week the Sponsorship Group for Public Television, a sales organization for the Boston station WGBH and other producers, said it would encourage companies to underwrite children’s shows like “Arthur” and “Clifford” for as little as a single week or as many as 10 weeks this summer.
Until now, the Sponsorship Group offered only full-year sponsorships. “We’re trying to be more flexible,” said Suzanne Zellner, the vice president for corporate sponsorships for WGBH.
While PBS officials spurn the word advertising, critics say shorter sponsorship stints are another example of the creeping commercialization of public television.
PBS executives say the summer-long sales period for PBS Kids is the most extensive experiment to date with shorter sponsorship periods. Chalk it up to the changing needs of corporations, especially in a tumultuous economy.
“Marketing decisions are being made closer to air time,” Ms. Zellner said. “Budgets are being determined one to two quarters beforehand. We want to be responsive to the marketplace.”
Last month, for instance, the Walt Disney Company completed a one-month sponsorship of “Frontline,” “Nature” and “Nova” that promoted the release of the film “Earth.”
PBS has historically signed sponsors for annual partnerships; some of them have continued for decades. Short messages identifying the sponsors appear before and after programs. Distinguishing the segments from ads on commercial channels, the sponsors are forbidden from including what PBS labels a “call to action.” But fewer and fewer companies are interested in making long-term commitments to programmers. PBS’s financing from corporations has eroded over the years; “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer,” the broadcaster’s evening news program, has two of its four national sponsor spots available. PBS reported about $101 million in revenue from corporate underwriting last year, compared with $123 million five years ago. Andrew Russell, senior vice president of PBS Ventures, said the broadcaster was trying to “mesh better to the time frames and the decision-making processes that corporations have now.”
Last year the broadcaster upgraded its computer systems so that it could swap out sponsor messages more frequently, shortening the wait for new spots.
“No longer do we have to hold a sale and wait until September comes around,” Ms. Zellner said.
In the fall PBS will start providing more timely ratings to corporate sponsors, addressing another familiar complaint from potential marketers, that they didn’t have enough information about the audience they were reaching with their messages.
PBS’s efforts to put its shows on the Internet with advertising have also come under scrutiny. Last year the broadcaster upset some staff members when it placed episodes of “Nova,” “Wired Science” and other shows on Hulu, a popular video Web site. The site includes a commercial before the episodes, just as it does for shows on other networks that are not publicly supported, and splits the revenue with PBS. But PBS officials said the site prohibited commercial breaks with their shows.
Last month the broadcaster unveiled a new video portal on PBS.org that is more closely tied to the local stations. Web episodes of “American Experience” are sponsored by Liberty Mutual, just as they are on TV.
Mr. Russell said the next iteration of the video site would include pre-episode ads and banner ads, but that the guidelines for it had not been completed.
Susan Linn, the director of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, an advocacy group, said that PBS had been moving toward a more commercial approach “for a long time,” and said that changes to the sponsorship model were “undermining parents and harming children.”
She expressed concern that PBS would now be able to show seasonal ads for toys or PG-13 movies on the children’s shows and drew parallels to commercial channels like Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network.
Ms. Zellner and Mr. Russell said that PBS’s strict guidelines about sponsorship messages remained in place. “The only difference here is the amount of time that you need to be a funder for,” Ms. Zellner said.
The shorter sessions will also be available for children’s shows like “Dragon Tales” and “Martha Speaks.” The Sponsorship Group will offer packages of shows that can be sponsored together.
Ms. Zellner said she hoped the short-term sponsorships would encourage companies to make longer commitments. Already, she said, three new corporations are talking to her sales staff about full-year terms.
“It gives them a chance to test it out,” she said.