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How to Create PBS Underwriting Messages

An underwriting message must identify the program sponsor -- but cannot promote the underwriter, its products or services. The FCC has specifically warned noncommercial broadcasters to avoid certain promotional elements, such as (1) calls to action, (2) price or value information, (3) superlative descriptions or qualitative claims, (4) direct comparisons with other companies, their products or services, (5) inducements to purchase, and (6) endorsements. These are some of the most readily identifiable flaws that cause noncommercial broadcasters to fall on the wrong side of federal law when it comes to sponsorship messages.

The FCC list is not, however, intended to be complete or exhaustive. Because other promotional elements may be harder to anticipate and to articulate, PBS reserves what it calls the "Rule One" right to determine whether, in each case, the overall appearance and effect of the on-air credit and credit sequence is in keeping with the noncommercial nature of public television. Whenever necessary and appropriate, PBS will suggest revisions to bring a proposed underwriting announcement into compliance. The decision of PBS is final.

You can follow the recipe below to create an enhanced underwriting message that noncommercial television is best equipped to incorporate into an underwriting credit sequence. These sponsorship disclosures are typically placed for broadcast at the top and bottom of a program.* The closer a proposed credit is to this approach, the more easily and quickly it can be reviewed and accepted for national distribution to PBS member stations.

  1. Start with the Basics
    Start with a clear visual identification of the funding organization by name or logo. For audio, either incorporate a "preamble" introducing the funder (e.g., "This program is made possible in part by ... ) or begin with the funder name so it can follow such a statement.

    A brand or product can be an underwriter. In such a case, the brand or product owner or manufacturer must be clearly identified in video, e.g., by lower third fonting of at least :03, accompanying the funder name or logo at any point in the underwriting credit.

  2. Add a Pinch of Additional Verbals
    To the extent there is additional identifying language, it consists of 20 words or less (whether voiced or fonted).

    In value-neutral language, terms, tones, and inflections, without singing, it conveys:

    • a business purpose (e.g., "Ortho-Clinical Diagnostics. Providing professional diagnostic products to hospitals, labs, and blood donor centers.")

    • an organizational structure (e.g., "Ortho-Clinical Diagnostics, a member of the Johnson & Johnson family of companies")

    • an organizational mission (e.g., something specific, as in "Ortho-Clinical Diagnostics, working with hospitals, labs, and donor centers to help ensure the safety of the world's blood supply"; or something more general, as embodied in the corporate slogan, "Pfizer... Life is our life's work.")

    Location information (e.g., web address or phone number) is presented in video only and accompanies the funder name or logo, for a maximum of :05.
    Voice is off-camera unless explicit expression of support for public television.

  3. . . . And Visuals to Taste
    To the extent there is additional identifying visual information, it follows a clear video identification of the funder by name or logo.

    If an underwriter identifies itself by the brands or products it makes or provides, the presentation does not emphasize the comparative qualities and benefits of the products. To this end, demonstration is minimal in relation to the number of brands or products depicted.

    To avoid implying customer use or satisfaction, an underwriter that chooses to identify itself by the people who represent its target market, does not depict products (other than a single product appearing briefly at the end of the spot with the funder name or logo, and not in the immediate presence of people).

    If an underwriter identifies itself by depicting its employees, owners, or executives, there are no consumers, clients, or celebrities who appear to be interacting with approbation or satisfaction so as to constitute an endorsement.

  4. Adding Healthy Ingredients
    As an alternative approach, or in some combination with the information described above, an underwriter's message states its support for PBS or public broadcasting, or aligns itself in a general way with the kind of programming it is here sponsoring. (E.g., "brought to you by a grant from the ExxonMobil Corporation, because we value creative energy in all its forms.")

Experimenting with the Recipe

Other creative approaches may be acceptable as well. Deviations from these guidelines will be evaluated by PBS Program Underwriting Policy staff to determine whether proposed tone, format, visual presentation, and other elements can coexist with a noncommercial purpose. Note, however, that promotional language cannot be accommodated, no matter how benign and value-neutral the proposed visuals may be. Scripts and other voiced or non-voiced verbal elements will be carefully scrutinized for compliance with FCC requirements and for overall impact together with other proposed elements.**

* A sponsor's on-air acknowledgment can be up to 15 seconds long. This maximum is reserved for major contributions. When less time must be allocated for other or minor sponsors, some adjustments may be required.

** On request, PBS can provide examples of promotional words and phrases taken from FCC enforcement decisions, as well as examples of non-standard approaches found acceptable, and unacceptable, for PBS underwriting messages.


PBS Production Guidelines
*PBS National Program Funding Standards and Practices
*PBS Guidelines for On-Air Announcements Promoting Program-Related Goods and Services




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