Public TV leaders reject 30-second underwriting spots
| Text of statement | Signatories | Text of "Six Practical Considerations" |
Originally published in Current, April 14, 1997
Public TV stations that oppose longer underwriting spots last week circulated a position paper that lays out arguments against encroaching commercialism in public TV. The 34 station leaders who signed the document pledged that their stations will reject 30-second underwriting credits, and decline to carry programs that do not adhere to PBS underwriting standards.
The list was dominated by 14 state networks, but included some major urban stations such as WGBH of Boston and WETA of Washington, D.C. As of April 10, the document had signatures from managers representing 127 stations and 34 licensees, including 14 state networks, 10 university licensees and 10 community licensees.
Most big-market public TV stations, meanwhile, are accepting longer, more ad-like underwriting announcements, deepening a longstanding rift within public TV over commercialism. [Earlier story.]
The document, "Reaffirming a Noncommercial Public Television Service," states: "What we do affects one another, often in profound ways. In the case of more commercial practices, we fear that the differences among stations are becoming a liability to us all."
Reaffirming a noncommercial public television service
A statement by 34 public television licensees representing 127 stations
Nearly half a century ago, with the strong support of Congress, the Federal Communications Commission laid the foundation for the creation of public television by reserving channel assignments nationwide for the sole use of noncommercial educational television. In doing so, the FCC recognized public TV stations as public service, noncommercial, community-based institutions created to advance education, culture, and citizenship.
From the beginning, public television has fulfilled its mission with the help of a diversity of funding sources, all the while maintaining its commitment to public service in a noncommercial environment. Today, however, funding needs have caused that tradition to be threatened by pressure to move toward the commercial model. While we all share the desire to seek stable, secure sources of funding to continue to provide our services to the American people, we are concerned about the potential consequences of more commercial practices. Consequently, in this document we offer our concerns, our beliefs, and our reaffirmation of the need to remain a distinctive, noncommercial television service.
We believe that becoming more commercial is not the answer to our funding needs. In fact we believe this trend toward commercialism is fundamentally flawed for three reasons:
- A more commercial strategy is unnecessary to attract growing support from the private sector. Many stations have demonstrated significant growth in corporate support without lengthening credits or pursuing other commercial practices.
- The pressure to move toward more commercial practices puts at risk much larger revenues from existing local sources.
- More commercial practices will adversely affect our programming. While audience ratings have become one means of measuring our success, longer underwriting credits and other more commercial practices inevitably emphasize audience size and cost-per-thousand over education and public service. This, in turn, increases the pressure to evaluate and choose our programming in the same manner as our commercial colleagues.
Further, we are alarmed about the growing inconsistency of underwriting credits within the industry. Already the practice of some stations of airing 30-second underwriting credits which contain commercial content makes it more difficult for producers to attract national underwriting within the length and content limits of PBS underwriting guidelines. Finally, we are also concerned that longer underwriting announcements will soon lead to shorter programs and, eventually, to program interruptions in order to accommodate these longer credits. We strongly oppose either of these actions as they would further undermine the distinctiveness of our service.
What we do affects one another, often in profound ways. In the case of more commercial practices, we fear that the differences among stations are quickly becoming a liability to us all. The stations and state networks listed below are committed to the public service noncommercial model and to the belief that noncommercial service is in our collective self-interest and in the public interest. We, therefore, reaffirm our commitment to the principles upon which public television was founded, and in keeping with that commitment, we pledge to one another that we will:
- Not accept 30-second spots on our air nor carry programs which do (with the allowable exception of announcements for local community-oriented 501(c)(3) organizations);
- Decline to carry programs which contain underwriting credits which do not adhere to the PBS underwriting guidelines;
- Support and adhere to the PBS underwriting guidelines as the common, consistent standard for all national, local, and acquired programming (recognizing that these guidelines will change from time to time);
- Oppose the use of paid programming from commercial vendors;
- Support the noncommercial model of public broadcasting before Congress; and we
- Urge PBS, CPB, and APTS to actively work on our behalf to support these same values and to resist the forces within the system which would seek to commercialize public television.
KAET/8, Tempe (Phoenix), Ariz.
KLRU/18, Austin, Tex.
KDIN/11, Des Moines
KBIN/32, Council Bluffs
KHIN/36, Red Oak
KIIN/12, Iowa City
KSIN/27, Sioux City
KTIN/21, Fort Dodge
KYIN/24, Mason City
WNSC/30, Rock Hill
KPTS/8, Wichita, Kan.
WLPB/27, Baton Rouge
KLTL/18, Lake Charles
WPSX/3, University Park, Pa.
KUED/7, Salt Lake City
WBGU/27, Bowling Green, Ohio
WKGB/53, Bowling Green
WMEM/10, Presque Isle
WVTB/20, Saint Johnsbury
KETS/2, Little Rock
KEMV/6, Mountain View
WUNC/4, Chapel Hill
WUNP/36, Roanoke Rapids
KUSM/9, Bozeman, Mont.
KSPS/7, Spokane, Wash.
KULC/9, Salt Lake City
WUFT/5, Gainesville, Fla.
WMAB/2, Mississippi State
WHRO/15, Norfolk, Va.
KIPT/13, Twin Falls
KCDT/26, Coeur d'Alene
WGBY/57, Springfield, Mass.
KTVR/13, La Grande
KNPB/5, Reno, Nev.
WSRE/23, Pensacola, Fla.
KCPT/19, Kansas City, Mo.
WETA/26, Washington, D.C.
WMHQ/45, Albany, N.Y.
KRWG/22, Las Cruces, N.M.
WCIQ/7, Mount Cheaha
Six practical considerations about accepting 30-second underwriting credits
Many public television stations are considering whether to accept 30-second local underwriting credits. We believe that, besides the more philosophical issues of commercialism and mission, there are some very practical reasons to be concerned about the effects of accepting longer underwriting credits. Here are six items to consider.
- Lack of complaints doesn't signify acceptance. Many stations that have moved to 30s say they hear few, if any, complaints. But vocal complainers are the easiest to deal with. Of greater concern is how many will simply not renew their membership. It's very easy not to write a check, especially if they think they have a reason not to.
- A small loss in membership requires a large gain in underwriting just to break even. Most stations' membership revenues are about four or five times the size of local underwriting revenues. So any erosion in the membership because of 30-second credits would require an increase of four or five times that percentage in local underwriting to offset it. For example, if longer credits result in a loss of 10 percent in membership revenue, it will take a 40 or 50 percent increase in local underwriting just to break even.
- Rather than risk losing membership revenue, why not invest to increase it? We believe for most stations there is still considerable room for growth in membership revenue. For example, one measure of the effectiveness of a membership effort is Dollars Per Viewing Household. The stations in the system with the best membership programs yield about $14 or $15 per viewing household, while most other stations have much smaller ratios -- in the $4 to $5 range. We believe this potential should be exploited fully before adopting a strategy like 30-second local credits that could actually damage membership revenues.
- "It isn't the length of a credit, it's the content." Yet, as the FCC itself has said, "the longer an announcement takes to identify the underwriter, the more likely it is to be promotional" (letter to WNYE-TV, October 16, 1992). Every station starts with the best of intentions, but financial pressures and incremental decisions eventually lead to more liberal credits.
- What happens when 30s start appearing on national shows? Most stations now running 30s are airing only one or two per night or per break, so the frequency is low and the opportunity for viewer backlash is small. But as more stations allow local 30s, the pressure increases to give national underwriters the same privilege. (Currently, by PBS rules, national underwriters may only have 15 seconds.) When that happens, the number of 30s within every break will double or triple, and the potential for viewer/member backlash will increase commensurately.
- How much break time is left when local credits are 30s? The time between programs is limited -- usually about three minutes. A move to 30s will probably use more of that break time for local underwriting. So the station will have less time to communicate with its viewers about other programs, events, fundraising messages, institutional positioning, and the like. To maintain that level of communication, the only remedies are to lengthen the break time by shortening programs (when, ironically, commercial broadcasters are reducing the time between programs to improve audience flow from one show to the next), or interrupt programs for promos.
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Earlier news: Stations that support 30-second underwriting credits said months earlier that the issue had been resolved: the longer spots are accepted by many major-market stations.
Later news: The question of on-air advertising begs to be resolved, while public TV is developing a forum for just that issue and fundamental questions that divide the field.
Current Briefing on commercialism in public broadcasting.
Web page created April 14, 1997
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