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PBS Ombudsman

The Advertising Issue Moves Online

The ombudsman's column of Aug. 11 dealt with what has been a relatively small but steady number of complaints I get from viewers who are upset at what they see as a steady growth of "commercials," corporate "advertisements" and "sponsorships," as they describe them, on PBS. They feel this undermines the system's basic premise to deliver top quality, non-commercial programming to the public.

The column contained an explanation from a senior PBS official about how funding works at PBS in which she pointed out that public-private funding partnerships — involving individuals, businesses, state and federal governments, foundations and educational institutions — are critical to public television's ability to offer top quality programs, and that corporate funders — operating within restrictive PBS guidelines — have been an essential part of this for several decades now, providing about 25 percent of the total funds necessary.

Some of the most interesting e-mails from viewers referred to in that Aug. 11 column were from parents who were upset that the new PBS KIDS Sprout, a digital channel offered by Comcast to its cable subscribers, contains real commercials — ones that advertise real products — strung between segments of the popular three-hour "Good Night Show," for example. This is in contrast to other popular PBS KIDS offerings broadcast nationally, some of which have "sponsorship" messages, rather than typical "commercials," before and after the actual programs, on PBS-affiliated television stations.

Now, the issue of "commercialism" on PBS has moved, like lots of other things, from broadcast and digital television to the online world of PBS.org.

With PBS seemingly always squeezed for money, the likely move toward gathering additional revenue through at least some online advertising and new "sponsorship" linkages was suggested by top officials in a couple of public appearances last year, although there was no official statement.

But the operation really got started in January when PBS signed a deal with Google, also without any formal public statement or press release at the time, to allow so-called "sponsored links," which are text-only paid advertisements from commercial firms provided by Google, on a small number of its top viewership pages.

Then on Aug. 21, PBS signed a deal with a newly formed online sales division of National Public Broadcasting, LLC, for the sale of display underwriting and digital sponsorships on PBS.org. Beginning on Oct. 1, PBS will allow sale of sponsorship banners on its six major Web categories — Arts, News & Views, History, Science & Technology, Business & Finance and Home & How-To. In addition, they will also allow sponsorship banners, aimed at parents rather than children, on PBS KIDS and PBS KIDS GO! homepages.

Stirring Up the Web Watchers

So far, I have received one e-mail from one viewer about these two developments, perhaps because not many viewers actually know about them, perhaps because the Google links are fairly subtle, or perhaps because not many people are upset. On the other hand, both PBS actions have stirred up a considerable amount of coverage and comment in the trade press, and among watchdog groups and activists who view them as a violation of PBS's non-commercial charter.

I'll try to summarize these objections at the end of this column, but here are a few links to some of the more comprehensive news accounts about the clash of views on this subject. These include a report in the Los Angeles Times on Aug. 26, others in Communications Daily (no link available) and Variety on Aug. 25, and in Communications Daily and Broadcasting & Cable on Aug. 24. In addition, Jeffrey Chester, the executive director of the "Center for Digital Democracy," has been especially active in challenging PBS's actions, and he has also written to me directly about his concerns.

I've written about funding and sponsorship issues on a number of occasions where programs can appear, to me or to some viewers, to impinge on a program's editorial credibility or PBS's editorial guidelines. One example was when several of the funders for a program about Las Vegas had ties and economic interests to the city, even though the program, itself, seemed well done and not under any outside influence. Another was the preponderance of funding for the also well-done documentary about "The Armenian Genocide" that appeared to come from Armenian American sponsors.

In this current controversy, the general debate is over how PBS continues to get its revenue rather than whether this new revenue stream violates, or appears to violate, editorial guidelines in specific programs. So I don't have an opinion at this point on some of these challenges. One further complication is that Federal Communications Commission regulations and PBS's own charter apply to PBS's broadcasting over the airways and not, at this point, to the Internet. So even though communications platforms are merging seemingly every day, this is new ground for both PBS and its critics.

Getting Blasted Can Be Healthy, Sometimes

On the other hand, I think the blasts and challenges being aimed at PBS by some of its critics are healthy in the sense that they are forcing, or should force, an airing about how this very important, and unique, public broadcasting service is gliding into a new source of revenue within the online world and whether they are doing so in a way that is consistent with what is widely understood by the public to be their mission and their difference with commercial broadcasters.

For example, one of the things Chester wrote to me, and to PBS, about was the fact that users on the Web site who clicked on one of those Google-provided "sponsored links" would have "information about you collected; a 'cookie' placed on your computer, and that your information may be shared with third parties." Chester said, "I believe such links on the PBS Web site without full disclosure is a potentially deceptive feature of the PBS site."

PBS's Lea Sloan, vice-president for communications, and Kevin Dando, director of education and online communications, agreed. "He asked a good question," said Dando. "We agree there could be more precision in describing what happens to users when they leave the PBS site," said Sloan. Within a few days, PBS provided a much fuller description of its "sponsored links" on its Web site.

It now reads: "Sponsored links are paid advertisements provided by Google. While PBS makes every attempt to ensure that sponsored links adhere to the specific content guidelines, please be aware that when you click on a sponsored link, you will leave pbs.org. These sites may differ from PBS in editorial approach, technologies used, and privacy guidelines. It's important that you make yourself aware of other sites' privacy policies and your browser's security settings when navigating the Internet."

But Chester went further, he wrote that: "PBS should not be engaged in any interactive advertising — on its Website, via its digital broadcast airwaves, or by any method (such as wireless). PBS must not be allowed to become a digital ad-addicted junkie. It should offer the public a totally commercial-free environment as it enters the broadband communications era. We hope that Congress will consider legislation restricting PBS, NPR and other federally supported public broadcasting entities from running any ads at all — including interactive outlets. We believe that PBS's future more fruitfully lies in building up a site that users will financially support — grateful that it will be one of the few places on the planet where they aren't the target of personalized interactive marketing."

Here's What PBS's Sloan Has to Say

"Unlike other public broadcasters around the world that receive the majority of their funding from the country's national government (for example, the BBC receives more than $200 per household through a mandatory television license fee), public television and radio in America must rely on a variety of funding streams to bring the American people the high-quality content and education services they have come to expect from PBS, all the while maintaining our editorial independence and remaining true to our non-commercial mission.

"This is a balance we have successfully maintained for more than 35 years, as evidenced by the fact that the American people have called PBS the most trusted public institution in a national poll for the last three consecutive years." (Ombudsman's note: This refers to a poll taken by Roper Public Affairs & Media. This poll of 1,000 adults between the ages of 25-75 is commissioned by PBS, but Roper says to maintain objectivity, the questionnaire does not identify PBS as the sponsor.)

Sloan continues: "PBS has always received revenue from a variety of sources, including corporate sponsors, individual donations and foundation grants, among others. PBS is approaching online sponsorship in a cautious and responsible way, and will carefully review sponsorship messages on pbs.org to ensure that all messaging is consistent with PBS's non-commercial nature. Particular attention will be given to message elements such as superlatives, overt calls to action, and competitive claims. Additionally, sponsorship messages on sites with children's content will be targeted to parents and caregivers, not children, a practice that also follows our broadcast guidelines.

"In order to keep our renowned content and services available to all citizens, in the last several years PBS has taken innovative steps to develop and build on other revenue generating sources, such as creating the PBS Foundation and supporting Corporation for Public Broadcasting's Major Gifts Initiative.

"It's important to note that our non-commercial mission goes beyond whether or not we allow limited sponsorship messaging. PBS content is based on its mandate as the nation's public broadcaster. Programs and services are chosen independent of their commercial value. This stands in the starkest contrast to other broadcast networks, which make commercial appeal the greatest consideration for all their decisions, across all platforms. More and more, their content is judged on its ability to attract viewers in demographic categories that advertisers find desirable. PBS will continue to uphold a strict firewall between editorial content and sponsorship messages as it has since its beginning."

Other Voices

Aside from Chester, some others views expressed in the trade press about the new PBS moves online include a station manager in Idaho who sees potential problems with state entities with respect to linking to commercial sites, and others, such as Steve Bass, the president of Oregon Public Broadcasting, who was quoted in Communications Daily as saying that "the whole notion of commercializing the kids service" is a concern. He would prefer to see PBS treat its children's services as a "public service and leave it at that. There isn't much money in it anyway," he is quoted as saying.

Susan Lynn, co-founder of the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood, said the action would mean there was "less and less difference between PBS and any other commercial children's station," and Gary Ruskin, executive director of "Commercial Alert," was quoted, also in Communications Daily, making a similar point.

On the other hand, Patti Miller, vice-president of "Children's Now," said that her group also worries about the "increasing commercialization across the media." But, she tells Communications Daily, PBS is in "a tough place" because of the decrease in government funding in recent years. "I think this [advertising] issue points to the need for increased federal funding for PBS kids programming. The big question is how do you fund quality educational media for kids? There has to be a business model." PBS, she says, is the leader in providing quality educational content for children and the government should invest more in PBS.

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