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The Ombudsman Column

The Mailbag: A Limited Edition

As readers of this column are probably aware, the regular ombudsman's site at PBS.org was among those affected by the hacker attack against PBS during the Memorial Day weekend. We managed to post a mailbag on June 2 using a temporary site that was set up while efforts continued to repair the initial damage. That work has just been completed so we are now back at our familiar online home.

The problems with the site did diminish our normal flow of letters during the past two weeks, but some have arrived and they are posted below. Most of them deal with unease among some viewers about new online and proposed television "experiments" by PBS that allow moving some promotional and sponsorship messages within some programs, rather than clustered just at the beginning and end, as a way, according to PBS officials, to avoid audience drop-off at the end of one program and before the next one begins. I wrote about the online changes in May and the proposed television experiments in the mailbag earlier this month.

Here are the letters.

On Those 'Breaks'

I just read your June 2 piece, and I feel that I must join the chorus of unhappy PBS viewer who object to the "experiment" of commercial breaks within the programs. Indeed, this has already started in the online programs, and the insertion of commercials is jarring, clumsy and incredibly annoying.

If PBS is so desperately in need of additional financing that it feels it must provide commercials, then I suggest it think of a better way. The one thing that has distinguished PBS from regular broadcast channels is the commercial-free programming. If that one distinguishing characteristic is removed, there is no reason for "viewers like me" to contribute to PBS. Nor watch it, for that matter. As one writer to your site concluded, the program quality has already declined, and this "experiment" puts PBS squarely in the same pool of mediocrity as the corporate broadcasters.

My suggestion to PBS is that if you wish to retain loyal viewers and contributors, than you must maintain the previously higher quality of programming and presentation. I would consider increasing my monetary support to keep the commercial intrusion out of PBS programs. It should also be understood that I will consider withdrawing all financial support. Surely the smart and talented people who run PBS are capable of coming up with an innovative way to pay for programming without compromising everything it has always stood for.

Karin McCool, Chicago, IL

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I have enjoyed PBS all my life, and I consider it to be an American treasure. There are certain programs, such as Nova, that I don't ever recall being without, thanks to PBS. One of the things I always found most valuable is that PBS has always been non-commercial in nature, which removes much of the pandering and bias prevalent on most commercial networks, particularly those offering news. I recall in the 1970's corporate and institutional sponsors of PBS were restricted to a line of text identifying them before a program. Then voice announcements were allowed. Then brief promotional presentations were allowed, as long at they didn't exhort the viewer to do or purchase anything.

Now PBS wants to have promotional announcements interrupting the program at regular intervals. You know, these are starting to sound more and more like . . . commercials. Personally, I will avoid any such PBS programming. It's a shame, because Nova was really great. I'll miss it.

Portland, OR

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I am a member of all the public TV stations that I can watch in the Bay Area. NOVA and NATURE are two of my favorite programs. If PBS increases their corporate breaks for these programs or any others, I will discontinue my membership. It is hard enough to see how much the present corporate sponsorship has influenced programming; any more and it should no longer be called public TV or ask for public funding.

I feel there should be no corporate advertisements at all, and would certainly increase my contribution if that were so. As it is, I support the stations because I believe they still contribute, but further corporate advertising would terminate my support. The United States is becoming a plutocracy, a country that is of the corporations, by the corporations and for the corporations (witness the Citizens United Supreme Court decision). The corporate sponsorship already undermines PBS's ability to examine this issue. I don't want to see further undermining of what is supposed to be public programing.

Carol Olwell

'Deeply Disappointed,' in Advance

I can't describe how deeply disappointed I was to hear that PBS is edging closer, no crossed the line, into Commercial television. Establishing program breaks. Please don't do this! This is a poor management decision which breaks faith with the people who made PBS what it is today. It is truly wrong-headed. To our household, the end user, this is an indication that Corporate interests now out weigh PBS's service to the public. We saw this coming as Chevron began its image campaign during the Gulf Spill. Companies & corporations just can't keep their hands of such a winning combination, but to have the PBS staff embrace this is shameful!

RG & JM Tracy, Bend, OR

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On the News Ombudsman site of June 2, a PBS official justifies the use of commercials by Chevron and Tom's of Maine as a creative or experiment, intended to offset costs. There is absolutely no innovation involved in bludgeoning audiences over the head with patently false and/or obnoxious corporate commercial messages. The Tom's of Maine toothpaste commercials on "Masterpiece Mystery" have just managed to drive me away in the middle of an episode. Suddenly Hercule Poirot is gone . . . the volume soars . . . a tall, lanky blonde celeb is explaining the real meaning of beauty.  Why won't she go away and why does she insist on coming back? Let's just say I once used Tom's of Maine toothpaste and I once was a devoted fan of David Suchet. That should cover it.

Kathleen Cole, Denver, CO

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About the plan to change the format of PBS shows to include promo segments analogous to ad breaks on commercial television. No doubt you are receiving plenty of comments about this, so I will be brief. The world is becoming a single globalized commercial entity (echoes of Francis Fukuyama and Thomas Friedman). In this hyper-economistic world, only small enclaves of attention to non-commercial values remain. One option is to disband PBS and let producers and filmakers seek outlets elsewhere, since there is little reason to spend public money on something that is not much different from the rest. Another option is to remove and replace the people whose value set pushes them to propose and implement something so inappropriate. I vote for the latter option.

Richard Box, Bellevue, NE

On the Environment

I was disappointed that the NewsHour [June 9] would collaborate with an extreme conservative magazine — The Economist — without even identifying it as being such, and that they would broadcast "finger pointing" at carbon emissions from third world countries (no matter how valid) without pointing out the Americans in turn emit FIVE TIMES AS MUCH carbon per person as the average citizen of the planet, let alone the emissions from small subsistence farmers! The real "Smoke" is coming from the PBS NewsHour. Whatever happened to Jim Lehrer's promises to report truthfully, fairly, and to tell "both sides of the story?"

And once again (earlier in the show) the NewsHour gets reporting on climate change wrong by having a weatherman report on the issue rather than a climatologist. A climatologist could have reported truthfully on the state of climate change and what we need to be doing about it, rather than stating " . . . it doesn't matter . . . "

Jim Adcock, Bellevue, WA

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I watched your report [NewsHour, June 9] on the MLPA ocean closures to the public. One thing you didn't cover is the lawsuits that Coastside Fishing Club and others have brought to the courts to overturn the corrupted MLPA process that private money has bulldozed down our throats. As of June 9, 2011 we have won three court challenges the latest being in the San Diego Superior Court. This whole process has been funded by the Resources Legacy Trust Fund Foundation money to shut down vast areas of ocean to sportfishing as well as commercial fishing. The people backing the MPLA's say that it is only ten percent of the ocean but it's ninety percent of the habitat that holds fish. Please interview Coastside Fishing Club to get the other side of the story. You had scientist telling the story of the closings but nobody of their intellectual equal on the other side.

Bill Harp, Chico, CA