Marketing tie-ins finding their way to PBS sponsors

Critic's Corner

PBS explores sponsor tie-ins

October 23, 2006|By Matea Gold | Matea Gold,Los Angeles Times

NEW YORK -- When the producers of Fetch! were trying to piece together funding for the new PBS science program for 'tweens this year, they got an assist from some unlikely quarters: Arby's and Macy's.

The fast-food chain and the department store helped cover the costs of the 30-minute program, a partly animated game show in which children compete in science challenges. What they got in return was more than a subdued underwriting credit.

This summer, Arby's restaurants offered a kids meal featuring Ruff Ruffman, the animated dog who stars in Fetch! Macy's invited the show's young cast members to inaugurate a new store in Chicago by conducting a scavenger hunt decked in apparel from Greendog, its children's clothing line. Next month, Ruff Ruffman and the Fetch! kids will be featured on a Greendog float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.

Fast food and clothing tie-ins may sound like marketing tactics that would be anathema to noncommercial television. But at a time when public broadcasting is facing constant challenges to its federal funding, PBS producers are seeking to sweeten the deal for corporate underwriters, offering new ways to up the value of their sponsorships.

The result is that commercial backers of public television have a higher profile than ever.

Nowadays, the names of corporate underwriters are attached to every platform for a show, whether Web site, podcast or DVD. They are featured at screenings and other events, and their brand is plastered on educational materials distributed to teachers and caregivers.

"The marketplace has kind of demanded it of us," said Marcia Hertz, managing director of marketing and client services at the Sponsorship Group for Public Television, the marketing arm of Boston station WGBH.

But some watchdog groups fear commercialism is gaining a foothold in public television. McDonald's now sponsors Sesame Street, and PBS partnered with Comcast last year to launch PBS Kids Sprout, an advertiser-supported cable channel for preschoolers.

This month, PBS began selling banner ads from companies such as Disney and Albertsons on its Web site, pbs.org.

"It's just one more intrusion of the commercial ethos into an organization that was supposed to be firmly noncommercial," said Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, a Portland, Ore.-based consumer group. "The line between them and the commercial networks is getting fuzzier and fuzzier."

Public television executives said they are vigilant about keeping a firewall between the programming and its corporate underwriters.

"If we feel something is inappropriate or we don't feel comfortable with it, we say so," said Margaret Drain, WGBH's vice president of national programming, who added that the station turns down frequent requests from sponsors to do product placements on shows.

Some critics, however, fret that an increasing pursuit of corporate dollars will alter public television.

"Programming is going to be greenlighted at PBS based on the variety of commercial deals it can generate," said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a Washington-based group that seeks to preserve public-interest programming.

PBS President Paula Kerger said she does not believe corporate underwriting has compromised the system's noncommercial nature. But she added that she is monitoring the efforts to generate new revenue, especially online.

"I'm watching this personally very carefully, because this is new territory," Kerger said. "We just have to be really careful about anything that is really obtrusive or smacks of too much commercialism."

Inconsistent taxpayer support for public broadcasting has fueled the push for more corporate backing. The bulk of public television programs are produced by several PBS stations, which receive start-up money for the shows from PBS and the federally funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting. House Republicans have sought to cut CPB's budget for the coming years.

Even with federal money, stations must cobble together additional financing from foundations, grants and corporations to cover the cost of programming.

"We still come across people who think you just get a card [after the show] that says, `XYZ Co., a proud sponsor of Nova,'" said Suzanne Zellner, the station's vice president of corporate development. "A lot of companies have no idea that you can run a 15- or 30-second spot."

PBS ombudsman Michael Getler said that although he does not believe PBS producers tailor content to please corporate sponsors, he has concerns about public perceptions.

"People trust PBS generally, but is it an area where that trust could be eroded if it's not handled very, very adroitly and carefully?" Getler said. "Yes, I think it could be."

Matea Gold writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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