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PBS Ombudsman

The Mailbag: Ask Not What Larry Can Do For You . . .

It has ever been so that non-commercial public broadcasting has had a problem at times with seeming, well, at least a little bit, commercial. The vast majority of funding comes from voluntary contributions to stations from viewers like you, member-station dues to PBS, grants from foundations and trusts, and taxpayer-funds appropriated by Congress and distributed by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (usually 15% or less of total funding). Then there are other things that have also been around for quite a while, including corporate underwriting, pledge drives, DVD and other sales.

But beginning in 2011, PBS television and PBS.org have also been using new on-air and online "experiments" involving more on-screen promotions of programs and brief, paid underwriting sponsorships online. I've written about this many times. And I've explained that, on one hand, these are important to an always-pressed PBS as a new way to raise more revenue and retain audiences in tough times. But, on the other hand, most of the viewers who write to me about these things say they don't like these new intrusions.

A Slow but Steady Drip, Drip

It may be that the great majority of viewers understand what PBS says it must do to survive and thrive and are okay with these new techniques. But at least from the perspective of the ombudsman's mailbag, the complaints have not stopped; not a lot of mail at any one time, but a slow, steady drip of criticism.

So, in the spirit of reflecting the views of those who write to me, here are some recent emails. I asked PBS to respond to these complaints and that is posted at the bottom of the column.

First, Something New

The first two letters below are related to the general theme of creeping commercialism but they are about a different approach. The headline on this column, which, of course, is a play on the famous words in President Kennedy's inaugural speech, relates to the issue raised in those letters.

They both refer to a fairly recent feature on the PBS NewsHour's "The Business Desk" web page titled "Ask Larry."

Larry Kotlikoff is an expert on Social Security and answers questions submitted by viewers and readers of the feature. The problems arose because several of his answers on his most recent column of Jan. 22 suggested that the questioners needed his $40 retirement software program to figure out specific issues. The software charge had been mentioned in previous "Ask Larry" postings but, for some reason, readers seemed to take note of it in Tuesday's offering.


Aside from the handful of letters to me, the NewsHour took a much larger drubbing from viewers on its web page who objected to the sales angle. When I asked for a response, NewsHour producers said that the inclusion of the software sales pitch was a mistake and inappropriate and that all references to the need for the software purchase in this week's column have been removed.

Just below is the editor's note that now runs at the bottom of the original Jan. 22 posting, along with an explanatory comment from business correspondent Paul Solman. However, you can still see examples of the pitch on previous columns.

NewsHour Editor's Note: In an earlier version of this post, there were many references to Larry Kotlikoff's software program that sells for $40 as the way to answer the specifics of their question. That answer triggered discussion and criticism. NewsHour removed these references and here is Paul Solman's response: "Larry is just being honest. He answers every question that comes in — in the order they're sent to him — promptly and for free. But he can't run people's numbers himself. His program allows them to do it themselves. I have been the one to insist that we print the price tag so that people don't go to his site and discover the cost as a surprise."

Here Are the Letters

This veiled advertisement has no place on pbs.org.

Three of the answers are blatant sales pitches:

"Which of these three strategies is best? Only our $40 program can say."

"Determining which is best requires using a software program like ours."

"For $40, you can use our program and find out what's best."

I'm surprised and disappointed at this lapse in journalistic integrity. Surely PBS could have found someone willing to write about social security without shilling.

Bruce Leban, Bellevue, WA

~ ~ ~

Why are you effectively placing paid advertising columns on the PBS NewsHour page by giving space to an advice columnist who uses the column as an opportunity to shill his "$40 program", rather than answer questions? The column I'm referring to is "Ask Larry".

Kansas City, MO

Other Distractions

I have a comment about the integrity of PBS. I find the content of their shows overwhelmingly informative/entertaining and appropriate. However, PBS seems to be adopting the annoying and distracting practice of putting promotions for other programs onscreen (in the lower left hand corner) while the main show is airing. I find this very disrespectful of the viewer. I have sadly come to expect this type of behavior from the "commercial stations" but isn't PBS better than this? Please use your influence to help put a stop to this practice.

Steve Sivley, Austin, TX

~ ~ ~

PLEASE . . . stop showing pop-up ads during dramatic performances, such as Masterpiece Theatre. They are totally inappropriate! Imagine going to a movie theater and having pop-up ads appear on the screen as you watched the movie. Pop-up ads are very out of character for PBS, being more the type of thing you would expect to see a commercial channel that is "hyping" programs to increase viewership. I have paid my PBS membership dues for over 30 years to avoid advertising.

Jeffrey Keimer, Portola Valley, CA

~ ~ ~

What is up with the increase in "commercials?" I had to recheck the channel number recently when I stopped on PBS and was watching a Lotto commercial. Then a car commercial. Slipping them in slowly? Not enough funding? Isn't there a conflict of interest when you start using commercials? I'm really disappointed in PBS for this. You are selling out.

West Haven, CT

~ ~ ~

Now at 8:24 PM I watch WOSU-TV give a very, very long (10 minute) commercial for donation and advertisement for Downton Abbey. How can this be? How does a "non-commercial" TV (and radio) station thump us with so many commercials? They look, sound and torment the viewer like commercials, so they are commercials.

Your president, whose name I missed, said during this commercial that PBS and local stations "reach out" to the community. BS! I have asked my community/public broadcasting station to routinely publicize (advertise) the nationwide and countywide information and referral number 211, which helps us solve our human problems. But does WOSU "reach out"? No. I am told to buy advertising time to say 3 highly-controlled sentences.

David Weaver, Columbus, OH

~ ~ ~

Ironically, the theme of the Downtown Abbey episode I attempted tonight to view online was change and the end of an era. My personal PBS era also ended. How insulting to be subjected not only to sloppily inserted, smarmy commercials but also a blatant throttling of bandwidth resulting in video stalling every 5 minutes. How shockingly short-sighted and ill-managed!

Clearly the PBS we had supported not only personally but via corporate and institutional giving is dead. There will be no further funds from any entity within my influence. Please do not ask again.

Gordon Smith, Mill Valley, CA

~ ~ ~

When attempting to watch 'This Old House' via the PBS web stream the ads seem to come though just fine. But once the program starts I can't watch it without if freezing up every 5 seconds. Why is this?

Bennett Wallace, Louisville, KY

PBS Responds

The PBS staff conducts ongoing audience research about the use of on-screen promotional messages. We understand that the use of the lower third of the screen in this way is not to every viewer's taste, but we have also learned that this information is useful to other members of our audience. We are working hard to balance the needs and preferences of everyone who watches PBS. It should also be noted that some local stations may also include their own promotional messages or sponsorship spots into their broadcasts.

Regarding spots that precede streaming video on pbs.org, the inclusion of corporate underwriting allows PBS to continue to provide content free of charge. No spots are permitted in conjunction with PBS KIDS digital content.

The individuals who mention streaming difficulties are likely experiencing technical issues that are unrelated to the inclusion of underwriting spots. In November 2012, more than 180 million videos were delivered across various PBS platforms. A number of factors, from temporary server problems on the PBS end to issues with the individual user's device, could account for an inability to see streamed content. Viewers are welcome to contact PBS Audience Services (audienceservices@pbs.org) for help when they encounter problems.

As America's public broadcaster, we are committed to presenting the best viewing experience possible. Comments from our audience, both positive and negative, are our best guide in making future decisions about our content and its presentation.

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