Re: Interruptions. Summary: No! No! No!
Lou Wiley, retired after 30 years at WGBH in Boston, was surprised to see commercials interrupting the series he formerly helped supervise.
I am alarmed by two “experiments” PBS has embraced that will insert commercials into the body of its programs. One has already begun. Online commercial ads are being rolled in at various points during video streaming on PBS.org. The other project, just announced, involves the on-air broadcast. It will mean moving promotional and funding spots (with the commercials of corporate underwriters) deeper into the hour.
Even though the current plan is to “test” interrupting on a limited basis, the practice will soon spread. What sponsor, especially corporate sponsor, would accept seeing another get placement inside a program and not demand the same? These profound changes not only cross a Rubicon into outright embrace of commercialism but will seriously compromise the quality of what the PBS audience sees on television and online.
I discovered PBS’s online “experiment” by accident. I was watching a recent Frontline magazine piece on the abuse by priests of Native America children in Alaska. An upbeat Goldman Sachs branding ad popped up right after a particularly heartfelt comment by one interviewee. My reaction was disbelief. I thought it was just a technical snafu.
I began thinking about other PBS programs — how Ken Burns’s monumental work The Civil War would be received with jazzy little appeals to buy some product or service popping up every now and then. I know how much money is spent to produce these spots, which are designed with utmost skill to divert our attention and disrupt our concentration.
For producers of long-form documentaries, drama and music, inserting advertising and/or sponsor and promotional spots into their work means a fundamental shift in storytelling: Films and performances will have to be designed, as commercial programs are designed, to accommodate the commercials, with five-minute introductory segments and five-minute closers, under the initial PBS broadcast “experiment.” Stories or performances that require sustained concentration will be discouraged. Plot lines will need to be reconfigured. Also, material with a new commercial sensibility will need to be developed to signal to viewers that it’s time to go to a commercial, and then to signal we’ve come back from a commercial. As for public television’s rich tradition of sustained treatment of demanding, sometimes controversial subjects — well, those days are numbered.
While both “experiments” threaten the hallmark quality of PBS programs, the online interruptions represent a profound risk on a different front. By welcoming the insertion of commercials online, PBS invites them on-air. Whatever legal barriers the FCC may impose, I think PBS can rely on one group to help rip down those barriers: the members of Congress who want to defund public media. They will no doubt welcome commercialization of PBS programs. It permits them to argue that PBS can drop its noncommercial status, chase ad dollars in earnest, and no longer receive help from taxpayers. Who knows, a privatized PBS.com might be a moneymaker, but it would destroy the essential differences between PBS and the commercial media.
Can the case be made that what the country really needs is another commercial-like addition to the overcrowded commercial media landscape? Joining that world means reshaping the stories and reporting and performance now on PBS into smaller pieces and editing even within pieces to conform to the needs of the advertising machine. Efficiency will demand that inserts be computerized so that the breaks occur regularly, whatever the program. Will those whose creative work has given public media a literate, distinctive sensibility not wonder whether the money garnered has come at the price of a piece of their soul?
Public broadcasting began with a few bedrock principles. One was its aim to be a noncommercial alternative to the dominant media. Let’s consider what it means to be unfaithful to one’s core values. PBS trumpets (and rightly so) the unusually high trust and support that the American people have for public media. How long will that trust last when it becomes clear that PBS is determined to abandon a singular attribute that distinguishes its programs? PBS now stands apart from what is being done in the commercial world, where production must be surrounded and interrupted by the commercialism that suffuses our life.
Please spare me the ginned-up PBS focus-group studies on how much commercialism viewers can take before they hit the off button. Why ask its audience these questions unless they are designed to help PBS manipulate the audience into accepting ads and the insertion of commercial sponsor messages in the middle of its programming? Such cynicism and disrespect for the history and mission of public media tells me that the leaders at PBS have completely lost their way.
Of course, I understand that commercialism propels the larger enterprises in our society. It’s just that I spent 30 years believing public media could produce stories, reports, drama and music in an atmosphere that would be a respite from the din of selling and spin that surrounds most media experiences. My vision of public media is rooted in a public purpose and a public persona: public parks, public libraries, public schools — public media.
Just as we do not need commercial billboards inside public parks; just as we do not need commercial flyers inserted into the books in our libraries; just as we should not break up professors’ lectures with commercial advertising announcements; so I believe we do not need commercials, whether called sponsorship messages or just plain ads, rolled into public media programs online or on-air.
Inevitably PBS will respond with questions: “How else will we pay for what we post online? How will we make up the difference if Congress cuts our budget? How else can we diminish the clutter of sponsorship and promotional material now piling up at the end of PBS programs?” Here are some ideas:
On-air: Declutter the breaks by moving tune-in promotion to the Web and other devices. Send viewers there to find out what’s coming up with a short highlight tease and a simple URL. Make local underwriting spots fewer in number, exclusive for the day and hence more valuable.
Online: Give visitors the choice of remaining noncommercial. See if anyone would be willing to pay a subscription to be free from commercial and promotional assault. I would! It could be a pay-per-view choice or universal for all PBS websites. Stations could offer the option as an added benefit at a certain membership level.
Incentives for corporate underwriters: Lobby Congress to disallow the business tax deduction of commercial ad buys on public media. Instead, increase the tax deduction for underwriting grants to public media conditioned on acknowledgements running at the beginning and end of programs and in specific enumerated ways on the Web. These acknowledgements should have a noncommercial sensibility.
In the end, if the public media community feels it has no alternative than to make itself into a pale version of commercial media, then I believe it’s time to start a broad strategic rethinking. The system could consider what properties PBS might sell to commercial enterprises to raise funds to protect and enhance programs essential to PBS’ core mission, for example, or begin discussions with a consortium of great public and private universities who might have the wherewithal for a friendly takeover of PBS so it can be refashioned with a renewed dedication to the educational, noncommercial mission that is its birthright.
Lou Wiley served as executive editor of Frontline until 2009. Though he’s still a consultant for the series, the views expressed in this commentary are his own. Email:
Copyright 2011 American University