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When image isn't enough

Weak economy is driving Exxon Mobil, other companies away from PBS sponsorship in favor of direct ads, leaving stations scrambling for funds.

January 31, 2003|Elizabeth Jensen | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — PBS development executives traveled to Dallas in October to honor Exxon Mobil Corp. with the first-ever "PBS Corporate Leadership Award." As contributor of $250 million to public television over more than 30 years, Exxon Mobil certainly qualified for this unusual you-scratch-my-back-I'll-scratch-yours honor to "recognize companies that have demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to public broadcasting."

But the timing couldn't have been more awkward: The oil giant had already served notice that it was looking long and hard at whether to continue its $9-million annual sponsorship of the signature PBS series "Masterpiece Theatre."

When an Exxon Mobil executive accepted the award with just a terse bit of thanks, many thought they saw the handwriting on the wall for the bad news that the company would make official the following month: No more money for the drama series, effective in the 2004-05 season.

Exxon Mobil's official reason for pulling out is that the company wants to target its messages in the environmental realms that more closely align with its businesses. Period British dramas don't qualify.

It's a message public broadcasting executives are hearing frequently these days. Some companies -- most recently, Volkswagen -- are supporting public TV for the first time. But many others are saying they simply have no extra pocket change in the down economy for image messages -- the only thing that public television's strict rules allow -- that aren't directly tied to getting consumers to buy a product.

That puts PBS, and local stations that air its programming, in an increasingly difficult situation. The broadcaster is attempting to put together a slate of ambitious, diverse shows that will draw viewers at a time when cable is also targeting a similar audience with news, history and nature programming. But that takes money. "American Family," for one, the Latino drama that just ended a first year sponsored by Johnson & Johnson, won't be back if more money doesn't come through.

"We're nervous," said Bill Baker, president of New York station WNET. "We've got something wonderful here, but will we be able to tell that story?"

PBS President Pat Mitchell said recently that much of her time in her second three-year term, expected to be finalized soon, will be devoted to finding funding sources.

Corporate underwriting is only part of the PBS funding formula, which also includes federal and state funds, viewer donations and foundation support, but it's a key one. In the 1990s, corporate funding soared by about 65%, to more than $110 million. In the last two years, however, that figure has dropped to $95 million, a level that will likely hold or maybe even drop again in 2003, said Wayne Godwin, PBS' executive vice president and chief operating officer. PBS will spend about $164 million in fiscal year 2003 to acquire and promote shows in its National Program Service.

Nonetheless, Godwin remains optimistic for the longer term. "We've ridden the tiger before, and there's every reason to believe we'll come back from it," he said.

In fact, PBS is looking at taking a key step this weekend to alleviate some of the problem. The board is expected to vote on whether PBS should start accepting 30-second underwriting credits -- PBS-speak for the soft-sell ads at the start and end of many PBS programs -- double the current 15-second limit.

The 30-second ads would be offered to PBS' most generous underwriters -- those who give $2.5 million or more -- who have been clamoring for more time to tell their stories. It's a debate that has roiled public television stations, and a change that many viewers likely wouldn't even notice; the current one-minute limit on groups of promotional spots will remain. Moreover, of the 30 largest PBS stations, 26 now run local underwriting spots of that length, including KCET in Los Angeles. "We've had zero complaints from the audience," said WNET's Baker.

PBS has been reluctant to accept them, however, because some member stations fear that the change will be perceived as a step toward commercialism, perhaps endangering state and educational funding. In fact, just a year ago, PBS decided against even discussing longer credits because the debate was already "in the realm of religious wars," Godwin said. "It's a difficult, emotional, passionate subject for the system."

But with Exxon Mobil threatening to pull out -- and putting longer ads on its list of desires -- PBS in the fall rushed the debate back through its committees. "Exxon Mobil did not drive the discussion of 30s versus 15s, but it certainly was a contributing factor in getting the subject to the top of the priority list," Godwin said. In the end, the company pulled out before PBS made its decision.

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