Public TV executives against selling ads

June 22, 1995|By Marc Gunther | Marc Gunther,Knight-Ridder News Service

For public television, selling ads would be selling out.

That, at least, was the consensus of about 200 public TV executives who met in Washington this week to ponder an uncertain future and to lobby Congress for money.

Some Republicans on Capitol Hill have urged public television stations to sell advertising, to make up for an expected loss in federal support.

But, while stations are willing to ease some restrictions on corporate underwriting, PBS President Ervin Duggan said the idea of selling full-fledged commercials is opposed by PBS and most stations.

"The sentiment for outright advertising on PBS is very much a minority sentiment," Mr. Duggan said.

The reason? If PBS stations come to rely on support from sponsors, they would become dependent on ratings for their support. "

"It would drastically alter our mission," Mr. Duggan said.

The temptation to sell advertising arises because Congress has voted to cut the 1996 and 1997 budgets for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funds public television and radio. The CPB is getting $285 million from the federal government this year, and pending legislation would reduce that to $275 million in 1996 and $260 million in 1997.

Federal rules prohibit public TV underwriters from selling products by, for example, comparing them to competitors, offering price information or directly urging people to buy cars, soft drinks or toys.

PBS has loosened a few rules on its own. Underwriters will now be permitted to show corporate mascots, such as Ronald McDonald, and they can use their own announcers, rather than those provided by PBS. PBS may also double the maximum length of an announcement, from 15 to 30 seconds.

In addition, the stations voted this week to carry 350 hours a year of PBS's national prime-time schedule at the same day and time in all markets. That should help attract more underwriting, executives said.

But few station executives are inclined to go further.

For one thing, few have the expertise or ability needed to compete for ad dollars in the commercial marketplace. Station managers also worry that cluttering public television with ads would drive away dues- paying members.

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