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Is the PBS Happy Meal a future menu item?

Corporate sponsors of public TV fare are gaining more visibility, and that alarms some watchdog groups.

October 20, 2006|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — When the producers of "Fetch!" were trying to piece together funding for the new PBS science program for tweens earlier this year, they got an assist from some unlikely quarters: Arby's and Macy's.

The fast-food chain and the department store helped cover the costs of the 30-minute program, a partly animated game show in which children compete in science challenges. What they got in return was more than a subdued underwriting credit.

This summer, Arby's restaurants offered a kids meal featuring Ruff Ruffman, the animated dog who stars in "Fetch!" Macy's invited the show's young cast members to inaugurate a new store in Chicago by conducting a scavenger hunt decked in apparel from Greendog, its children's clothing line. Next month, Ruff Ruffman and the "Fetch!" kids will be featured on a Greendog float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. (Producers declined to say how much the companies spent on the sponsorships.)

Fast food and clothing tie-ins may sound like marketing tactics that would be anathema to noncommercial television. But at a time when public broadcasting is facing constant challenges to its federal funding, PBS producers are seeking to sweeten the deal for corporate underwriters, offering new ways to up the value of their sponsorships.

The result is that commercial backers of public television -- whose support used to be noted with just a discreet mention after a program -- have a higher profile than ever.

Nowadays, the names of corporate underwriters are attached to every platform for a show, whether website, podcast or DVD. They are prominently featured at screenings and other events, and their brand is plastered on educational materials distributed to teachers and caregivers.

Because federal broadcast regulations prohibit sponsors of public television from endorsing or promoting their products on the air, much of the new exposure is happening off the screen.

"The marketplace has kind of demanded it of us," said Marcia Hertz, managing director of marketing and client services at the Sponsorship Group for Public Television, the marketing arm of Boston station WGBH.

But the stepped-up efforts to court corporations alarm some watchdog groups, who fear commercialism is gaining a foothold in public television. McDonald's now sponsors "Sesame Street," and PBS partnered with Comcast last year to launch PBS Kids Sprout, an advertiser-supported cable channel for preschoolers.

This month, PBS began selling banner ads from companies like Disney and Albertsons on its website, pbs.org, citing the need to tap into new revenue streams.

"It's just one more intrusion of the commercial ethos into an organization that was supposed to be firmly noncommercial," said Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, a Portland, Ore.-based consumer group. "The line between them and the commercial networks is getting fuzzier and fuzzier."

Public television executives said they are vigilant about keeping a strong firewall between the programming and its corporate underwriters.

"If we feel something is inappropriate or we don't feel comfortable with it, we say so," said Margaret Drain, WGBH's vice president of national programming, who added that the station turns down frequent requests from sponsors to do product placements on shows.

"It's a slippery slope, and you have to be very, very careful how you protect the environment," Drain said. "But if it's handled appropriately, then we stand to benefit and the viewers stand to benefit."

Some critics, however, fret that an increasing pursuit of corporate dollars will ultimately alter public television.

"Programming is going to be greenlighted at PBS based on the variety of commercial deals it can generate," said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a Washington-based group that seeks to preserve public interest programming.

PBS President Paula Kerger said she does not believe corporate underwriting has compromised the system's noncommercial nature, noting that sponsorship spots take up a tiny fraction of airtime and do not interrupt programming. But she added that she is closely monitoring the efforts to generate new revenue, especially the system's foray into online advertising.

"I'm watching this personally very carefully, because this is new territory," Kerger said. "We just have to be really careful about anything that is really obtrusive or smacks of too much commercialism. But at the end of the day, most people understand that we need to do some amount of corporate underwriting in order to support the work we're doing."

Federal funds wane

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