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COMMERCIALS CREATING STATIC AT PBS MEETING

Times Staff Writer

On station KERA-TV in Dallas, it’s not unusual to see a commercial message for Rodger Meyer Cadillac, in which the dealership owner stands proudly next to a big Caddy that is topped with a giant, glistening bow.

What is unusual is that KERA is a public television station, one of the 313 such noncommercial U.S. stations that are members of the Public Broadcasting Service.

Deciding what the appropriate use of such commercials is--and whether there is an appropriate use at all--were questions that polarized the PBS membership at the start of its annual three-day meeting here Monday.

Other topics on the convention agenda are PBS’ use of satellite facilities after 1992, when the Westar IV satellite ceases operation; Project Literacy U.S., a joint effort between PBS stations and ABC affiliates to promote reading skills; FCC provisions that would allow local cable operators to drop public television signals from their lines, and PBS’ programming plans.

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None seemed as likely to provoke controversy as the ongoing debate over commercials on the noncommercial system.

Station managers who have utilized commercial messages--euphemistically called “general support announcements” or “enhanced underwriting"--consider them a good antidote to public broadcasting’s perennial financial woes.

Those against them rally with the vigor of street-corner evangelists, calling them the evil that will undermine the good intentions of public broadcasting.

PBS President Bruce Christensen noted the conflict that commercials represent at Monday’s opening session when he cited “the desire to preserve the basic, noncommercial nature of public television versus the economic realities of our time.”

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About the only fact seemingly accepted by the approximately 400 public television station representatives is that enhanced underwriting has been legal since the Federal Communications Commission relaxed its guidelines in 1984. That move followed a Congress-authorized advertising experiment by nine public-TV stations in 1982-83.

An estimated two dozen stations--including KCET Channel 28 in Los Angeles--are selling limited commercial time. Most of them enforce more stringent restrictions than what the FCC permits, limiting their number to no more than two per hour and airing them only between programs.

But public broadcasters cannot agree on whether commercials will bring in more or less corporate funding.

Stewart Cheifet, president of WITF-TV in Harrisburg, Pa., said that after trying out enhanced underwriting, he feels like Magellan, returning from his voyage to say, “The world is round; you don’t fall off.”

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He said that his station has doubled local corporate underwriting since last year, and neither viewers nor local commercial stations have protested the limited use of commercial spots.

But others fear that local commercials could make corporate sponsorship less attractive to major national underwriters. Mobil Corp., whose name has long been associated with such prestigious PBS offerings as “Masterpiece Theatre,” may not want to share the credit with a spot for Irv’s House of Pecans, or so the theory goes.

The Mobil type of underwriting is a staple of public broadcasting’s fund-raising diet, providing $56 million of the $166 million that PBS raised last year specifically for program production and acquisition.

GTE spokesman Philip Stevens, appearing via videotape, underscored the advertising critics’ concern when he said that his company, which currently underwrites “Discover: The World of Science,” will be looking closely to see if it is being “upstaged” on that series by local sponsors who are contributing less money to the show.

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There’s another, even greater concern that reliance on local advertising revenues could pervert the entire mission of public television, which is to present high-quality programs. “When public broadcasting hits the streets with (advertising) rate cards, much of the distinction between us and our commercial brothers ceases to exist,” said Henry Cauthen, president of South Carolina’s ETV Network.

“Selling advertising is a numbers game,” said Trish Hibben, consultant to Chevron Corp. and a member of Corporations in Support of Public Broadcasting. “It’s not a search for excellence but a search for profit.”

Some guidelines may yet emerge from the middle ground, and some broadcasters insist that guidelines are necessary in order for PBS to maintain a unified front, both for programming and funding.

William Kobin, president of Los Angeles’ KCET, suggested one possible set of guidelines: All spots should be produced specifically for public television, they should be “tasteful and restrained,” and national underwriters should get bonus commercial acknowledgement on local stations airing the series they underwrite.

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KCET’s hasn’t always abided by those guidelines, having aired an expensive and slickly produced Mitsubishi commercial that takes the viewer through the innards of a TV set. It was, Kobin said, only slightly modified from the 30-second spot that ran on commercial television, reflecting the confusion--and, in Kobin’s case, an acknowledged “ambivalence"--about “enhanced underwriting.”

It is unlikely that the advertising issue will be resolved soon--not when PBS members cannot even define what they mean by “commercialism.”

“If you want to see the most creeping commercialism of any kind,” said KERA President Richard Meyer, “go to a PBS auction. Or watch a pledge drive.”


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