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The Ombudsman Column

The Mailbag: A Mixed Bag

The ombudsman's inbox gets a small but steady stream of mail throughout the year from viewers who are upset in one way or another about what they call "advertisements" — and what PBS calls "underwriters" or "sponsorships" — on a whole range of television programs and online offerings.

Actually, there isn't much difference in the underwriter-sponsor terminology. They both essentially mean funded, in whole or in part, by or made possible by the XYZ corporation or foundation or grantor, for example.

I've written about this issue a number of times. Sometimes, for example, it is when an internal PBS policy about use of these sponsorships changes and sometimes it is when there are viewer complaints about a certain sponsor or about the accuracy of what is being said on-screen by a sponsor.

In keeping with an effort to record these gripes, I've posted a handful of viewer emails below, along with some brief PBS responses that are accurate but manage not to say much.

Similarly, after a viewer wrote to me and I forwarded to PBS management an article that appeared Monday in the online Huffington Post about a new appointee to the North Carolina Public TV board of directors, PBS said simply: "Since all PBS stations are independently owned and operated, PBS plays no role in local station boards, so we're not in position to comment." Again, true but hardly satisfying.

'We (Do Not) Interrupt This Program to Bring You . . .'

One other recent thing that I thought was worth taking note of in this brief collection of odds and ends, and that also illustrates the independence of local stations, is that fewer than half of them carried live President Obama's primetime speech to the nation about Syria on Sept. 10.

In last week's column, I posted a letter from a woman who complained that none of her four receivable PBS stations carried the analysis by NewsHour commentators immediately following the president's address.

In looking further into this, it appears that only about 40 percent of PBS-member stations carried the president's statement. PBS has more than 350 member stations and research showed that some 21 stations out of 56 markets that are monitored actually carried the speech live.

There are always some local issues to be worked out in introducing live coverage to scheduled programming, including a three-hour time difference on the West Coast, and it can also have the effect of causing people to switch to a cable news channel. So measurements and reasons vary.

But whatever the reasons, the result was that a major statement by the president on a major topic was not well-covered live on public television. One station executive described (to me) the lack of carriage by so many stations as "shocking and disgraceful. We are, after all, public television," he said, emphasizing public, and adding his sense that PBS was becoming more driven by program ratings and that, he felt, conflicted with its public service mission.

Here are some letters.

Annoying Ads

About 4 minutes of PBS program advertising occurs between programs. Yet PBS riddles its screens with execrable pop-ups with more advertising, and often at the most egregious moment. They are made to be as distracting as possible — except that they could be made to flash, to take it past demeaning to the program all the way to destroying the program images, as in the National Park programs. Not even commercial TV does such a dastardly thing to its programs.

Harvey Hiebert, North Newton, KS

~ ~ ~

I don't need to be reminded 6 times an hour I'm watching PBS. I know that. Please stop the onslaught of pop-up reminders of upcoming programming that now occur every 10 minutes on the screen. It is extremely distracting. You were the last station that didn't do this. It ruins the programming. Your viewers are smart enough to look at the schedule. Show us respect please. If this situation persists, I will no longer support PBS.

Bruce Wilk, Pittsfield, MA

PBS Responds:

We understand that not everyone enjoys on-screen messaging, but research also shows that it is helpful to many people. Our colleagues are working hard to balance many different sets of needs and preferences, which vary widely among our viewers. Our primary goal is that members of our audience enjoy the experience of watching PBS, and we will continue to work on every aspect of our presentation.

Some 'No' Votes for Wal-Mart

I watch the Tavis Smiley program as often as I am able to but I am stunned that he has Walmart commercials before and after his program. First, since when does PBS do commercials for some of America's GREEDIEST corporations? Where is your social conscience? Walmart brags about spending 2 billion dollars to end/ fight hunger when they should be giving that money to their employees in pay increases so Walmart employees do not need to live on food stamps, school lunches, public housing, medicaid. Walmart makes billions in profits every year yet pays its employees bottom dollar minimum wages so the rest of the nation is forced to make up the difference when Walmart employees have no money for food and other necessities. It is just not right. And then for you folks to be promoting Walmart as this angelic force in the universe, taking care of veterans, etc. is pure hogwash. Walmart is one of the worst of the worst corporate citizens in the US, pushing products from China onto our markets, undermining communities by driving out local stores by undercutting prices. These folks are not the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. They are a ruthless corporation determined to own the US. How can PBS be pushing them with commercials? I wonder too, why these Walmart commercials are at the beginning and end of Tavis Smiley's program. Does he not know about this? He is a brilliant man. How could he not know and how could he not understand how offensive this would be to his viewers? I have written before about this before as it really irritates me. I have received no acknowledgement that you even received my email. Please get Walmart off PBS. Thank you.

Susan Norman, Cedar Rapids, IA

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I just subscribed to KQED despite my extreme loathing of your current policy of carrying Walmart ads . . . I know that they are not officially ads, but, let's face it, they ARE . . . especially of late when they have become so long. I am particularly horrified (yes, that's the correct word) to see the Walmart ad which quotes MLK and cites Walmart's contribution to "wiping out hunger" (most often on "Tavis Smiley" yet!) when we all know it contributes so much to hunger by paying substandard wages here in USA and elsewhere. It advises employees how to apply for food stamps, has wiped out much manufacturing in USA by its policies and threats, has exploited foreign labor as well, and has decimated rural communities' small businesses, all so that its owners can remain among and near the top of the list of world's richest people. Please respond and try to justify this desecration. I know that most of your viewers are aware of Walmart's sins, but your tacit, even explicit, endorsement may persuade the less cognizant and intelligent among them that they are now justified to shop there. Because you are, in the main, a boon to all mankind, I've overcome my scruples on Walmart (and a Koch brother funding Nova . . . I'll never figure that one out!) hoping that my pittance helps to reduce your need to prostitute PBS and its supporters so blatantly. Thank you.

Susan Sheffield, Berkeley, CA

PBS Responds:

Public television is made possible by a remarkable public-private partnership involving individuals, businesses, state and federal governments, foundation and educational institutions. We are grateful to all of our underwriters for their generous support of our content and services, which are accessed each week by millions of Americans across the nation. Walmart has been an underwriter of TAVIS SMILEY since its debut on PBS more than a decade ago.

A Parting Thought

Finally, the complaints about Wal-Mart fall into a particular pattern that seems, especially, directed at public rather than commercial television. There are companies — even entire industries such as chemicals, oil and defense — that a percentage of viewers feel simply should not be accepted as "advertisers" by PBS because they may have supplied or are engaged with things or policies that some people take strong exception to.

Indeed, a caller this week told me he "found it incredible" that — after watching defense industry advertising generally during the run-up to the war in Iraq — Grumman was a sponsor of Washington Week with Gwen Ifill on PBS. The company is now called Northrop Grumman.

I told him he was certainly not alone among viewers concerned about further military conflict. But, on a personal level, I confessed to having a soft spot for the old Grumman Aircraft company and wondered whether there would have been complaints about advertising during World War II when the company was turning out thousands of Navy fighter planes and dive bombers, or in 1969 when a Grumman spacecraft carried astronauts to the surface of the moon and returned them safely to orbit.

My point was simply that these issues — and these companies and industries — are complex; they have a right to offer to be sponsors and underwriters, to use PBS for what are essentially "good will" advertisements, and that until some other way is found to support noncommercial public television, which is what PBS is supposed to be, PBS has a right to accept them as long as the spots are in accord with PBS's own regulations and its legal obligations to the Federal Communications Commission and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.