Premiere Sponsorship plan
Originally published in Current,
Nov. 18, 2002
Alarmed by the loss of underwriters for major programs, PBS would start offering 30-second underwriting credits to its biggest corporate donors under a proposal to be heard this week by committees of its board.
Though many big-city stations have long sold 30s, PBS still limits the length of spots on network programs to 15 seconds. But station support for that restriction has been waning for years. In 1995, PBS was surprised when many stations rebelled at its attempt to impose the 15-second limit on locally sold credits that air adjacent to PBS programs.
The 30-second credits of the proposed Premier Sponsorship deal would air only during primetime programming and the NewsHour, and they would be available only to underwriters that spend $2.5 million or more a year. Just four or five companies hit that threshold today, says Wayne Godwin, the network's chief operating officer. PBS would permit up to two 30s with each program. Credits still would be limited to two one-minute "pods" of credits per program, Godwin says.
PBS risks losing its largest underwriter, ExxonMobil, sole sponsor of Masterpiece Theatre, Godwin wrote in a memo to stations last week. Other companies won't underwrite programs because of limits on credit length, Godwin wrote. Based on reports from producing stations, he listed IBM, Visa, American Express, Sears, Panasonic, Samsung, Lexus, Acura and Paine Webber, among others.
The real choice for stations may not be 15-second or 30-second credits but having a major program or forgoing it, Godwin says.
Execs of producing stations estimate the system could lose $10 million to $15 million in national program underwriting if 30s are not approved, and could gain as much as $6 million if they are, according to Godwin.
Corporations are demanding the greatest exposure they can get for every dollar, says Judy Harris, head of the PBS Business division. Competing media are scrambling to offer advertisers "added value," she says.
In the uncertain economy, public TV has the disadvantage of trying to sell one-year and multiyear contracts to support programs when corporations can't see that far ahead, comments Bob Williams, head of National Public Broadcasting, a Boston-based underwriting sales agent for stations. PBS finds it hard to sell the soft image-building spots that corporations bought during the economy's Internet bubble, Williams says.
PBS floated the Premier Sponsorship proposal in a late October teleconference and plans to put it before its board of directors in mid-December, according to Godwin. In the meantime, the board's business committee will consider the proposal Nov. 18 and its membership committee Nov. 22.
The network was still collecting reactions from station execs last week, but some already weighed in: the proposed rules are too loose. Others said they're too tight.
The Organization of State Broadcasting Executives (OSBE) expressed concern that state governments would oppose the longer credits and cut their aid to pubcasters, Godwin wrote last week. OSBE leaders were not available for comment. In contrast, leaders of the Major Market Group of big-city stations said 30s should be available to all underwriters, Godwin said.
Steve Bass, president of Nashville PTV and a former underwriting exec at PBS, accepts the idea of 30-second spots, but says they should be offered only to underwriters at a level higher than the proposed $2.5 million threshold. He believes the content of underwriting spots, more than their length, determines whether they seem commercial.
Godwin said the proposal reflects the discussions among nine of the 10 station execs on a PBS task force on the proposal. The other, Maynard Orme, president of Oregon Public Broadcasting, said public TV has steadily loosened its rules for 20 years.
"There doesn't seem to be any stopping," Orme says. "We are just continuing to look more and more commercial. There are things I see on our air that make me cringe."
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