PBS plans to resume selling advertisements on its popular PBS Kids website, angering parents, children’s advocates and consumer watchdog groups concerned that the plan would pollute one of the last commercial-free bastions for kids on the Internet.
“Children are basically inundated with marketing and the PBS website was in some ways a sanctuary,” said Susan Linn, a psychologist and co-founder of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood in Boston. “This is just one more step in the commercialization of PBS and children’s programming.”
PBS said it needed to find new revenue sources because its funding was unreliable. The public broadcaster joins other media entities in tapping into a booming online advertising market.
“This is going to be very smart and respectful, and anything that will appear online will be in the spirit of what is on PBS on air,” said Kevin Dando, director of education and online communications at PBS.
Dando would not say how much money the ads were expected to generate.
Sponsorship messages already appear before and after children’s TV shows such as “Sesame Street” that air on PBS stations. Web pages for individual children’s shows also feature sponsors and links to their websites.
Starting Oct. 1, PBS will sell advertising banners across the tops of its flagship websites PBS.org and PBSKids.org. In July, the main PBS site drew 2.8 million visitors, while PBS Kids had 3.29 million, according to ComScore Media Metrix.
PBS ran banner ads on its websites from the late 1990s until 2001 but stopped when the bottom fell out of the Internet economy.
The flap over advertising is not the first for PBS. The public broadcaster upset watchdog groups as well as many of its own stations with the 2005 launch of an advertising-supported joint-venture cable channel targeting preschool children called PBS Kids Sprout. PBS also got static in recent years for allowing fast-food giant McDonald’s to sponsor the venerable “Sesame Street.”
Now, these critics worry that once PBS gets a taste of revenue from the sale of commercials online, it won’t be able to resist selling traditional advertisements on its television shows.
“Barney and Big Bird are going to find themselves hooked on digital advertising, and they are not going to be able to shake this,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, which encourages noncommercial public-interest uses of the Internet.
PBS receives most of its money in the form of contributions from individual viewers, corporate sponsorships, foundation grants and cable fees. About 7% of its revenue, which amounted to $36.9 million in 2005, comes from the federal government through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Public broadcasting funding is a favorite target of Republican budget cutters. President Bush proposed slicing CPB’s 2007 budget by 12.5%, to $346 million. The House and Senate appropriations committees have resisted, proposing to boost the budget to $400 million.
To add to its coffers, PBS since January has been running sponsored ad links on some sites in a deal with Google Inc. Those links, which have no graphics, generated fewer than 10 complaints by e-mail, Dando said. Based on that response and months of research and focus group sessions, PBS decided to allow banner ads, Dando said.
“It’s a smart opportunity for PBS to be pursuing,” he said.
PBS officials said the Web ads would follow the same guidelines that the group applies to its TV sponsorships. Those guidelines prohibit sponsorships that feature inappropriate material or that appeal directly to children. Critics say some sponsorships, such as one for Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurants, already appeal to children.
The banner ads on the PBS Kids site will be smaller than those on other PBS sites and will not appear on the Web pages of individual children’s shows. Many of those pages contain logos of show sponsors, such as McDonald’s and Pampers. When the logos are clicked, users will be warned that they are leaving the PBS site before being taken to sponsors’ websites.
David Lowe, vice president of marketing and development at KVIE-TV, a PBS station in Sacramento, said PBS officials were simply responding to viewers who had been urging stations to find ways other than pledge drives to bring in money.
“I imagine they’re not going to accept ads with dancing bears that say ‘click here for a free whatever’ to entice kids to click out,” Lowe said.
But offering ads could create problems for some state-licensed public TV stations that link their websites to PBS sites, said Peter Morrill, general manager for Idaho Public Television. Idaho and other states’ Internet policies often prohibit public entities to link to commercial sites, which PBS could be considered once it runs ads, he said.
“As this rolls out we’re going to have to look at it very carefully,” he said.
Chester, the consumer advocate, said he planned to urge Congress to stop the ad plan. And Linn’s group is organizing an online letter-writing campaign to urge PBS to reconsider.
One parent who responded was Amy Agigian of Somerville, Mass., whose 5-year-old son, Max, loves PBS Kids.
“It’s the one place that we have as parents where we can feel pretty secure that our kids aren’t being preyed upon by advertisers,” she said.