Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS
Search PBS  

Friday, July 11, 2014
PBS Ombudsman

The Ombudsman Column

"Underwriters," "Corporate Funders" & "Noncommercial" Public Television

On Tuesday, Aug. 8, one of the big stories of the day was the shutting down, by oil giant British Petroleum, of production at the Prudhoe Bay oil field in Alaska because of badly corroded pipelines that had not been properly maintained for many years. The field is the nation's single biggest source of domestic crude oil.

The news was the major segment of "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" that evening on PBS. The program host, Gwen Ifill, introduced the segment by stating that, "For the record, the operator of the oil field, BP, is a NewsHour underwriter." That was the proper thing to do, and the program followed up with a lengthy and informative segment on what went wrong, featuring extensive interviews with an engineer-oil industry specialist for a not-for-profit conservation and watchdog group, and with a top official from BP.

Nevertheless, a handful of viewers wrote and questioned whether the program had probed deeply enough into this episode and questioned whether what they saw as the "real story of BP's negligence," as one put it, had been soft-pedaled by a conflict of interest caused by BP being among the regular corporate sponsors of the five-nights-a-week news program.

Meanwhile, scores of additional e-mails continued to pour in blasting PBS (with two or three exceptions) for the firing of Melanie Martinez as host of the PBS KIDS Sprout program "The Good Night Show" for two 30-second video spoofs she made several years ago before she had anything to do with PBS. I've written two columns about this, but mention it again this week, and in conjunction with the oil pipeline story, only because some viewers are now also raising questions about the commercial aspects of KIDS Sprout and its relationship to PBS funding guidelines.

The reason I have lumped those two together is that since I started this job nine months ago, I have received perhaps one or two letters or e-mails a month from viewers about this same general subject; people who are upset at what they see as a steady growth of what they describe as "commercials" and corporate "advertisements" and "sponsorships" on PBS that they feel undermines the network's basic promise to deliver top quality, noncommercial programming to the public.

Et Tu, Bill

Even PBS icon Bill Moyers weighed in on this subject in his keynote address at the service's annual meeting in Florida in May, which was also the subject of an earlier column.

Even though federal government support for PBS is only about 15 percent of the network's budget, Moyers said, "the dilemma is that federal support is large enough to be a permanent crutch but too small to ease our need for corporate underwriting." He noted, with disdain, some of the advertising — by the National Mining Association, in particular — that has been appearing on some of PBS's premier public affairs shows and said, later, "let's balance programs underwritten by the National Mining Association and Boeing with programs underwritten by the United Mine Workers, Consumer's Union and Citizens for a Fair Economy. If they can't afford the underwriting, let's at least give them a hearing."

I've attached a sampling of the letters on this issue at the end of the column. But first, here are some brief observations on some of the specifics raised by viewers, and an explanation from a PBS official about the role of corporate advertising on public television and the rules that apply.

On the oil shutdown story, as I watched the program that night I did not get the sense that the NewsHour report soft-pedaled the issue. I thought the engineering and environmental specialist invited by the program, Lois Epstein, did a solid job of illuminating the problem and distributing blame among the oil company, the lack of federal regulations for this particular kind of pipeline, and conflicts of interest that contribute to the problem, especially at the state level.

PBS interviewer Ray Suarez, in moderating this segment, pointed out at the start that "BP officials said the aging pipeline, built in the 1960s and '70s, had not been cleaned properly over the years," and that "the corrosion problem was only detected after government-ordered inspections following a pipeline rupture in March that caused the biggest oil spill ever recorded on Alaska's North Slope. The spill is also the subject of a criminal investigation."

On the other hand, major newspaper accounts that same day were more broadly tougher on BP. The Washington Post, for example, reported that "BP's announcement also gave another black eye to a company that has fashioned an image as a responsible, environmentally concerned company, and it drew new criticism from pipeline experts and environmentalists who have been saying for years that the company had failed to do the maintenance needed to keep the pipeline free from sludge and protect it from corrosion in the harsh Alaska conditions." The New York Times reported that the pipeline shutdown is just "the latest in a string of embarrassments for BP."

Does BP "fashion an image," as the Post phrased it, in part by helping to sponsor one of PBS's most respected programs? If so, there is nothing wrong with that under existing PBS guidelines. BP also advertises in the Post and the Times.

But because PBS actually has so few corporate advertisers, the names and images stand out and that, perhaps, can generate assumptions of pulled punches among some viewers such as this one from St. Paul, MN, who asked, after seeing what he said was a much more critical report on CNN: Does PBS "not realize that it is not enough to not be influenced by a conflict of interest, but that it is also essential to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest?"

In answering this viewer, NewsHour Executive Producer Linda Winslow says, "It is true that the NewsHour accepts underwriting support from companies that are themselves in the news occasionally. We do so in accordance with the strict rules about corporate underwriting long ago established by PBS. For the record, never in our 30-plus year history has an underwriter ever asked us to shade our coverage of a news story they were involved in. From its inception, The NewsHour has endeavored to build a true barrier between our editorial and fund-raising departments; as someone who has worked here for several decades, I cannot recall ever experiencing a breach in that barrier."

It is always possible, of course, that an individual editor or producer within any news organization, knowing that a particular company is a financial supporter or big advertiser, will subtly try to soften a negative story without prompting from the company. But that is anathema to the culture of any serious and respected print or television news organization — and the NewsHour is certainly among the most highly-regarded in this country. And there are also internal safeguards against any such proclivities, as Winslow points out, which would ultimately be fatal to the credibility of the news organization.

Sprouting Commercials

What was interesting, and worthy of attention, in some of the more recent mail concerning the firing of Martinez was that some viewers had begun to highlight the differences between other PBS programs for children, as millions of viewers have come to know them, and the new PBS KIDS Sprout, the channel that hired, and then fired, Martinez to be the host of the popular pre-bedtime "Good Night Show" for toddlers.

One difference is that "The Good Night Show" has real commercials strung throughout the three-hour program between segments. When I say real commercials, I mean ones that advertise products. They are not the kind of corporate goodwill advertising on PBS national programs that sometimes come at the beginning or end of a program and advertise a company as a sponsor. Some of the Sprout adverts are obvious ones — for diapers, training pants and reading developmental skills. But some advertise mortgage loans. There are nowhere near as many as one would find on commercial networks or cable TV programs, and they are generally unobtrusive, at least the ones I've seen. But they are there, and people notice because they are not there on other PBS KIDS offerings such as, for example, "It's a Big Big World" or "Clifford, The Big Red Dog."

The other difference, and perhaps the reason for the commercials, is that the major partner in the partnership that owns the KIDS Sprout digital channel is Comcast, the definitely profit-driven cable giant. So some viewers wonder why it is called PBS KIDS Sprout. To give it credibility, no doubt. But adding your name also adds the blame when viewers believe things have gone wrong, as some feel in the case of added commercials and as thousands believe in the case of firing Martinez. So why not more accurately call it Comcast Sprout, one viewer asks?

PBS gets most of its funding — roughly 80 percent of it — from non-federal government sources; the largest single component from its 350-plus member stations and from "viewers like you." But like the 15-plus percent that comes from the government, through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the amount that comes from corporate support is also crucial to supporting the large amount of programming put out for children and adults. Perhaps in an ideal world, "public" broadcasting would not, and should not, need any government or corporate funding. But that's not the way it is, or has ever been in this country.

The Official Explanation

Here's how Cathy Hogan, PBS's Senior Director for Program Underwriting Policy, explains how corporate funding fits into the mix:

"Public television is made possible by a remarkable public-private partnership involving individuals, businesses, state and federal governments, foundations, and educational institutions. This wide range of entities is critical to public television's ability to offer quality programming to its viewers. For several decades, corporate funders have been an essential part of the funding mix, contributing about 25% of the total funds necessary to sustain the production of our programs.

"Federal statutes require that program funders be disclosed on the air at the time of a broadcast and PBS has developed strict guidelines to which national underwriters must adhere. All underwriting credits on PBS must be in keeping with the noncommercial nature of public television and underwriters are precluded from having any editorial control or participation in the production of programs.

"The criteria for underwriting credits state that they must be free of such promotional conventions as direct comparison with other companies, price information, superlative description or qualitative claims, calls to action, inducements to buy and demonstrations of consumer satisfaction and credits may never interrupt a program.

"Beyond a few obvious categories (such as tobacco, distilled spirits, firearms), we do not believe it is our role to make judgments about the social acceptability of a company or its products as long as they are in conformance with PBS standards. Companies that do choose to provide funding must accept the limitations placed by the Federal Communications Commission and PBS on what they can and can't say in their credits — far less than what they can say on commercial television."

Here Are Some of the Letters on BP

The NewsHour coverage (8/8/06) of BP shutting down its Alaska pipeline is a clear example of how having an oil company as its corporate sponsor, makes its "investigation" pathetic. And in this case nonexistent.

John Schwartz, Elbert, CO



The underwriting of the NewsHour has led to a sorry situation. Is PBS so obtuse that they do not recognize this? Do they not realize that it is not enough to not be influenced by a conflict of interest, but that it is also essential to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest?

If Consumer Reports accepted advertising from Sears and General Motors would you still have the same confidence in their recommendations even if they said that the advertising played no role in their recommendations? Consumer Reports understands the importance of avoiding the appearance of a conflict of interest. Why doesn't PBS?

When you have an advertiser (and why not use this word, after all) representing (let's call them a lobby) mining interests whose advertisement shows a beautiful countryside reclaimed by the mining industry, do you not recognize the affect this has on viewers? Has it played a role in your not presenting an in-depth report on the damage caused by mining? There is nothing you can say to erase our uneasiness. I heard on CNN last night a representative of NRDC [Natural Resources Defense Council] who was much more critical of BP than the individual you had on the NewsHour. Was the NewsHour report on this so tepid (and perhaps short) because BP supports the NewsHour?

Wayne Richter, St. Paul, MN



I watched the coverage of the BP oil line closing last night on the NewsHour. Noting that BP is a sponsor of the NewsHour, I was interested in hearing both sides of the story. Although the woman representing "the other side" of BP's story gave interesting testimony to BP's negligence, the real story seems to be much seedier if one is to believe an article published on Tuesday, August 8, 2006 by the Guardian/UK — British Petroleum's 'Smart Pig': The Brilliantly Profitable Timing of the Alaska Oil Pipeline Shutdown.

I still watch PBS to get the baseline story, and sometimes a real in-depth scoop, but I have to say, the information one can find on-line can be much broader, deeper and to the point. Why do I feel that even PBS is still walking on eggs to give us the REAL news? Why do I feel that the public is only getting a small part of the story?

Suzanne Stone, Centerport, NY


On the Sprout/PBS Connection

My recommendation to PBS is to drop its support from Sprout, not just because of the firing of Melanie, but because Sprout does not represent the kind of service I have come to expect from PBS.

As I watch Sprout, I see commercials, something that I shouldn't be seeing on a PBS channel. It might not be aimed at children, but it's certainly jarring and annoying to me. "Noggin" isn't on all day, but it doesn't show commercials during the preschools hours. If PBS has so little say in the commercial content of Sprout, then maybe it should no longer be called PBS Sprout.

Seeing Melanie's firing and your kindly response to us, I realized that the guilty party is Comcast, so, it should be called Comcast Sprout, rather than PBS Sprout, as PBS has suffered the backlash of negative feelings over something that they have no/little control over. Parents are going to lash out/praise when something upsets their children or deeply moves the little tykes with which they have been entrusted. Unfortunately, PBS is the only link with Sprout that most parents knew about, simply by the title. PBS gets tarnished with the brush, because it lent credibility to a channel that I feel does not deserve the honor.

Christy Hunter, Donaldson, AR



I am aware that Sprout is a joint venture among several entities, however, neither Comcast, Sesame Workshop nor HIT entertainment are contained in the name of the channel. It is PBS Kids Sprout. If PBS is going to carry the name, which is, I would suppose, to lend some credibility to the channel, then it will have to bear the brunt of the feedback when the viewers are angry. I have e-mailed my local PBS affiliate and said that while I understand they played no role in the decision, I have to stand on principle and eliminate my financial support of the station. As long as PBS's name is on the masthead, it has to suffer the negative feedback.

Of course, I also e-mailed Comcast, DirecTV (my provider), and as many Sprout sponsors as I could find e-mails for. This IS reversible if someone would just admit a mistake has been made.

Scott Farley, Chattanooga, TN


On "Commercials"

Wouldn't Edward R. Murrow be rolling in his grave seeing your corporate sponsorship today. Boeing, a mining company and even Audi. You should be ashamed. You beg us constantly to support your productions and then sell out to big corporate sponsors.

Gregory Ready, Brooklyn, NY



I am a regular viewer of PBS and I appreciate what it has done over the years. (Here it comes. Wait for it!) However, I am very displeased with all of the commercials that are popping up on PBS. In the "old days," major corporations received credit with something like: "Funded in part by Mobil Oil Corporation," and that was it! Now, companies like GM get 15 second slots to "sell" their vehicles. PBS is no longer "public," it is a commercial venture and a sell out.

Robert Stuard, Farmington, NM



I have been a journalist for 40 years and have been thrilled to have PBS as a major news source, primarily because of its intelligent approach to issues. But more and more, I am put off by the advertising on PBS, which I think undermines the promise to supporters of ad-free viewing. You can't help but know that the sponsor "information" now is an ad, regardless of what PBS might want to call it. The number of ads that Americans are subjected to on a daily basis is truly unacceptable, and to have PBS "join the crowd" of perpetrators is unconscionable.

Brunswick, ME



We are writing to express our disdain for certain corporate promotional segments on PBS. We are avid supporters of Public Broadcasting, both television and radio. We religiously tune in to "Washington Week" and "NOW" on our local station's Friday evening lineup. We treasure the availability of quality news, in-depth investigations, and what we PREVIOUSLY felt was un-compromised programming.

Recently however, we are very offended to see the sponsor's "promo" segments aired like commercial advertisements for Boeing, Archer Daniel Midland, the American Mining Association, Chevron, and others. We find it reprehensible to see these advertisements put positive spin on battlefield weapons systems, strip mining methods, crude oil production, etc. The advertisements seem an effort to co-op PBS viewers by highlighting very specific — favorable — issues, while ignoring or failing to acknowledge the very grievous aspects of their particular business activities.

In airing these promos, PBS appears to be approving of the negative aspects of corporate behavior. While most loyal PBS viewers are better informed than to be "taken in," others may not be. The lofty reputation of PBS should NOT be used to serve a "laundering" function, to "scrub" the image of bad corporate actors. Please, reconsider the criteria for sponsor's promotional spots in conjunction with revered PBS staples.

Ron Meade & Julia Lancaster, Austin, TX


About PBS | About this Site | Donate | Producing for PBS | TV Schedules | Station Finder

Arts & Drama | History | Home & Hobbies | Life & Culture | News & Views | Science & Nature

Feedback | Privacy Policy | Terms of Use

Copyright © 1995 - 2014 Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). All rights reserved.