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The Ombudsman Column

The Mailbag: Some Viewers Want to Give PBS a 'Pop'

The ombudsman's mailbox continues to receive a modest but steady stream of complaints from viewers about those small but obvious promotional blurbs that "pop up" on your TV screen every once in a while during a favorite program to remind you that you are watching PBS and to tell you what's coming next.

These appear on many PBS programs. But what seems to most annoy the people who write to me is when they pop on to the corner of the screen three times an hour during the highly-regarded drama series "Masterpiece," or during other programs that generate intense focus among viewers. One of the great, traditional benefits of PBS has been uninterrupted viewing. These small "promos" don't actually interrupt but they can be distracting.

Here's how one California family expresses it as part of a letter posted below: "Imagine you are attending a theater and during the performance someone keeps appearing at the side of the stage with a brightly illuminated sign promoting a future performance, or worse yet, a sign telling you what show it is you are watching right then!"

I've written about this issue a number of times before, most recently about a month ago, and have posted a number of emails from viewers. That September mailbag included the following response/explanation from PBS. "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."

As it turned out, that, too, annoyed some viewers who are readers of this column. I don't blame them. Here's what I'm told in asking PBS officials for a fuller explanation.

More from PBS

First, they say, PBS has to exist within the current media landscape and that means many hundreds of channels, far fewer printed schedules such as TV Guide, and many television viewers generally who jump around and may or may not be clear what channel they are tuned in to. They said surveys 4-5 years ago showed that a big portion of viewers were not sure which programs appeared on which channel.

So PBS says it uses these on-screen devices — which pop-up on average three times an hour during many, but not all, programs — to remind viewers what they are tuned in to and what comes next and to help them find their way back to PBS if they are channel surfing. Officials claim PBS's on-air audience has been growing and that the service's primetime rating is up more than 5 percent over the same period a year ago, according to Nielsen statistics, while, they say, many other broadcast networks are shrinking. They believe these on-screen pop-ups have contributed to that and in that sense are helpful to viewers and to PBS, which must maintain its audience to carry out its mission.

They claim that the on-screen pop-ups have been scaled back in size from the time they were introduced two years ago, that they are generally timed to occur when commercial networks have their breaks and that they are quite subtle and not at all like those lengthy, actual "breaks" in programs on other channels that feature long previews of coming attractions and star-filled promotions. And, despite complaints to me, they say that PBS headquarter's main audience services department gets very few complaints, considering the many millions of viewers for the overall broadcast schedule.

Here Are the Latest Letters:

My wife and I continue to be greatly annoyed by the on-screen pop-up ads promoting PBS programs that appear while we are watching another program. They are unnecessary and inappropriate, especially during programs such as Masterpiece Theater. Imagine you are attending a theater and during the performance someone keeps appearing at the side of the stage with a brightly illuminated sign promoting a future performance, or worse yet, a sign telling you what show it is you are watching right then! That's exactly what PBS is doing with these pop-up ads. What theatergoer would tolerate that?

I have read in the PBS.org mailbag letters from other viewer-members complaining about this. A PBS reply to one of those letters said: "We understand that not everyone enjoys on-screen messaging, but research also shows that it is helpful to many people." What research shows that many viewers find them "helpful"? How could anyone "enjoy" these intrusions? I am willing to wager these pop-up ads are being run because someone at PBS thinks they might promote increased viewership, and not because viewers find them "helpful".

We have been a PBS member-supporter for over 30 years and have never been angered by PBS policy, but we are by this one. It's something commercial TV would do, which is just what PBS is supposed to NOT be and is why we make annual membership contributions. Do the right thing. Respond to members' feedback and abandon this misguided idea . . . Please, tell me how can I help you make the case against these with PBS executive management. I, and I know other viewer-members too, am baffled that PBS persists in their use, as they are so much in conflict with the PBS foundational concept of an advertisement-free viewing experience . . . Member-viewers are looking to you to be their voice with PBS on this baffling practice that PBS has adopted.

Jeffrey and Marcia Keimer, Portola Valley, CA

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I am in support of the idea of eliminating pop-up ads on PBS shows such as Masterpiece Theater. I believe that there is time for informing the public about new shows and time for the show itself and they should not overlap. There certainly was a great deal of air time devoted to promoting Downton Abbey (a great show!!).

Errol and Jan Schubot

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Enough with the pop-up ads.

David L. Smith, Hayward, CA

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Our family objects to the on-screen promotions that pop up during Masterpiece presentations. We do not believe such promos have a place on PBS and especially during such excellent programs as Masterpiece. They are distracting, demeaning and annoying, much more suited to commercial television and not PBS.

Jerome Denz, Kamuela, HI

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I, too, am annoyed by the pop-up ads during programming. The last egregious experience was during the "Hollow Crown" this week. Not even Shakespeare is exempt from this lack of respect for a program. I think we need to mount a write in flood to corporate PBS directly. Stations don't seem to have a voice in this.

Liz W., Albany, CA


And More . . .

In regards to the increase in ads on PBS we respond by simply ending our donations. That is why we donate . . . so we don't have to put up with endless ads. As far as sponsors are concerned they shouldn't be given any more privileges than someone who donates a dollar. We also do not appreciate paying excessive prices for items for sale. Also attempting to make out your security words is to say the least difficult.

El Gabilon, Longview, WA

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I was saddened to learn that "Lower third" pop-up ads on Masterpiece Theater are embedded at PBS rather than KQED where I am a supporter and 'larger' backer at the 501c3 level of Quest and Center for Investigative Reporting. On Masterpiece Classic last Sunday came Part One of a delicious period piece called "The Paradise." It's impossible to completely enjoy "a costume and scenery drama" piece with annoying "Genealogy Show" ads popping up. If it happens tonight, as I expect it will, we will filter through our Comcast On Demand provider to see if we can avoid, even though the picture quality will be diminished. As I mentioned to you (and also touching on the similar "Downton Abbey" ruckus) these kinds of ads, while maybe suitable for "news programs" if at all, are out of place on certain shows and could be counter-productive. See if you can get a suitable response on this. Perhaps you could poll your larger corporate backers as well.

Hugh Fullerton

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For as long as I can remember PBS programming has been underwritten by a variety of corporations, and they were always listed and thanked in the credits either before or after the program. Then the "thank you's" morphed into very short simple promotions for those sponsors. Now they are full blown advertisements, produced by slick Madison Avenue firms, who are extremely well paid to persuade viewers that Company XYZ really does care about what we, the viewers, care about. If XYZ really cared about what we care about they would simply put up the money and quietly let PBS do the terrific job it has always done. I won't go so far as to say shame on PBS for taking the money from these "sponsors" but I will say I wish you would stand up and say no to their insistence on running regular commercial ads. If you don't, it won't be long until your journalistic integrity is gone and your credibility is the same as the commercial "news" programs, i.e. zero. Thank you for accepting my meager contribution and please tell Goldman Sachs that I did not click on their How We Saved the Universe pop-up.

Dean Erickson, Prescott Valley, AZ

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I read your recent posting on my nearby radio station KQED website. Thank you for your comments. I, for one, like Walmart, which sells products at affordable prices for those who work there and for those of us who shop there. My reason for writing is that I used to support KQED radio on a regular basis because I listen to it all the time, but stopped my support because of two things. One was religious programming and the other, more recently, has been the annoying, lengthy ads which are not just a few words about the sponsorship, but about a particular product, like the Herman Miller chair, now available in "true black" . . . blah, blah! and many more commercials like that which go on even longer than that one! Wouldn't a "limit" on the number of words the underwriter could put in their offering be a small concession and less annoying to those individuals who also sponsor the station?

I also read your comment about running TV ads for other programs while a current program is airing. How about running the ad during the underwriter's commercial . . . then we could either ignore both or read what interests us. Many thanks.

Diana Petersen, Vacaville, CA

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The woman who complained that no PBS stations in her viewing area carried an analysis of the President's televised address reminds me of most students in my algebra courses. For years, they neglected to read the assigned text and attempt the assigned homework prior to coming to class, spent every lecture period (which included ample time to ask questions) fiddling with their electronic devices, and then complained that I didn't "teach" them anything.

Why should PBS "analyze" or "interpret" anything the President says? After all, he doesn't speak Greek. Networks that do provide near-real-time "analyses" are really just letting other politicians take turns supporting or rebutting what the President just said, in keeping with their own biases.

Same goes for the "commercials," including those by Grumman, which "sponsors" occasional "documentaries" highlighting its military aircraft and the people who fly them. Thanks to TiVo, I blast through all "sponsor" announcements, whether on PBS or elsewhere. They are a waste of time, especially those that thank "Viewers like you."

James Bruner, Oak Harbor, WA

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I've watched Chicago's several PBS stations for some 40 years now. At PBS, as in so many areas of U.S. life, intellectual rigor/quality has gone downhill, that rush to the Lowest Common Denominator having become a torrent. I'm sure this is due to financial necessity married to the wish to remain au courant . . . but that dual-drive lessens quality everywhere, inevitably.

The most nakedly current commercial is the Ralph Lauren black and white/color haute couture attempt at advertising art which sponsors many Masterpiece dramas on Sunday nights. I have no wish to enter "Ralph's World" which is as fantastic as it is expensive. If PBS (WTTW in Chicago) needs to appeal to the less than 100 area billionaires to stay on air, so be it.

"Nova" is no longer a good place to view rigorous science, riddled as it is with would-be comedians: memo to Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson and David Pogue, you two are merely self-indulgent, not very funny. (David Pogue, you've made errors in your science column at Scientific American, by the way.) Your "humor" wastes too much time in a limited time slot. I'll continue to watch "Nature", which seems to have maintained its high standards for 30+ years, and isn't sponsored by a Koch brother. All of my negative critiques make me sad. I'll watch PBS programming, but won't donate a nickel, as it is now only somewhat better than the free networks.

Amber Ladeira, Forest Park, IL

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I have been trying to watch some of the videos on the Nova site on my computer. But I have noticed that there are plenty of commercial ads embedded into nearly all the videos I am watching. This is a disturbing turn for an organization that is part of PBS which does not involve commercial advertising. You should be ashamed of yourself and shame on your parents for making you the way you are.

Don Damour, Lewiston, ME