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ExxonMobil to End PBS Sponsorship

Times Staff Writer

Public television’s “Masterpiece Theatre” was dealt a blow Friday as ExxonMobil Corp. announced it would no longer fund the signature PBS drama series after 2004, ending a relationship that has run more than three decades.

The world’s largest publicly traded oil company has been the sole sponsor of the series since it first aired in 1971. Along the way, ExxonMobil became the largest corporate sponsor in public television’s history, with contributions of more than $250 million to PBS programs in the last 32 years. Its recent “Masterpiece Theatre” contributions have run about $9 million annually, according to people familiar with the situation.

An ExxonMobil spokeswoman said Friday’s decision, which came after weeks of negotiations with series producer WGBH-TV in Boston, was the result of shifting company priorities. “We felt that the time had come for us to consider some alternative sponsorship and outreach activities,” particularly in the areas of public health and the environment, said spokeswoman Sandy Duhe.

She said the decision “wasn’t based on disappointment on our part,” and praised the program, which in recent years has added American drama to its previously all-British lineup and weathered two schedule changes as PBS tried to fend off competition. “There never seems to be a good time to end a relationship that has spanned more than a generation,” she said, adding that the company was open to future PBS sponsorship.

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But the decision nonetheless comes at a crucial time in PBS’ history, as the Public Broadcasting Service seeks to find its way in an era of increasing options for viewers searching for cultural and public affairs programs.

Although “Masterpiece Theatre” programs are funded for another two years, replacing such a large sum of money isn’t likely to be easy in the current difficult corporate climate. After a down year in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, PBS and “Masterpiece Theatre” have had a strong season this fall, with the series’ seven-part “Forsyte Saga” remake drawing about 16 million viewers.

But underwriting money -- nonprofit PBS doesn’t carry traditional ads -- has been spotty, as the economy has faltered and companies have backed away from broad-based corporate philanthropy, embracing targeted contributions more closely tied to specific business objectives. PBS’ upscale and influential audience is appealing but small.

There have been some successes. Johnson & Johnson earlier this year underwrote the Latino drama “American Family,” and after a long search, “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer” lined up SBC Communications Inc. funding last year and recently renewed the relationship. But many of PBS’ well-received children’s series lack funding and the series “Mystery!” was unable to find a sponsor for last month’s production of a Tony Hillerman Native American detective story, which was executive-produced by Robert Redford. PBS says underwriting remains below a 1999 high but has come back from a falloff last year.

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“There’s no question that it’s a difficult time,” said WGBH spokeswoman Jeanne Hopkins, but she added that the station expects to announce a new corporate sponsor for another series soon, evidence that money is out there.

Hopkins said WGBH is “very disappointed” in the ExxonMobil decision but added, “certainly, we have to be grateful for the past 32 years, which is unprecedented.”

A PBS spokesman said that with two years to find new funding, it is too early to speculate about the program’s future. Hopkins, too, tried to put a good face on the news, noting that because ExxonMobil was the sole sponsor, the program has “never been available for sponsorship before. This is the first time we’ll be taking it out, so who knows? We’re optimistic,” she said.


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