Is the PBS Happy Meal a future menu item?

Times Staff Writer

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,, 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

Inconsistent taxpayer support for public broadcasting has fueled the push for more corporate backing. The bulk of public television programs are produced by several PBS stations, which receive start-up money for the shows from PBS and the federally funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting. House Republicans have sought to cut CPB’s budget for the coming years, a matter that will likely not be resolved until after November’s election.

Even with federal money, stations must cobble together additional financing from foundations, grants and corporations to cover the cost of programming -- and sometimes that still isn’t enough.

New York’s WNET, one of the major producing stations, loses around $8 million a year on the shows it develops for PBS, said William F. Baker, chief executive of the Educational Broadcasting Corp., WNET’s parent company.

“Without corporate underwriting, these programs would not exist and public television as we know it would not exist,” Baker said.

Drain described the process of developing a new public television show to putting together “a little feature film.”

“What people don’t understand about public television is we have to be very entrepreneurial,” she said.

In the last few years, WGBH -- which produces a third of PBS’ prime-time programs -- has gone after corporate backers aggressively, seeking to change assumptions about what it means to underwrite a public TV show.

“We still come across people who think you just get a card [after the show] that says, ‘XYZ Co., a proud sponsor of ‘Nova,’ ” said Suzanne Zellner, the station’s vice president of corporate development. “A lot of companies have no idea that you can run a 15- or 30-second spot. They don’t know that the branding message they’re running on commercial networks or cable is something that will work quite fine on our air as well.”

In the last year, the Sponsorship Group has increased its pitches to media buying agencies, stressing the off-air promotional opportunities for underwriters. “Antiques Roadshow” sponsor Liberty Mutual, for example, sets up booths at the tapings of the top-rated program held in cities around the country, surveying the thousands of attendees who bring their antiques to be appraised. The tactic has generated an average of 1,200 new leads for the local Liberty Mutual offices in each market.

WGBH’s approach has led to deals with companies that have never before sponsored public television, including Google, which last year waded into television marketing for the first time when it backed “Nova,” and upscale home builder Shea Homes, which is underwriting the children’s series “Curious George” this season.

The station is offering a gold-plated package loaded with perks in the hopes of attracting a new sponsor for “Masterpiece Theatre,” which lost longtime underwriter ExxonMobil in 2003. For $12 million, a company would get naming rights to the show, a presence at a Sundance Festival screening, tickets to the Emmys and a trip for 20 people to England, which includes a set visit and tour of a local castle. Executives have even offered to send direct mail to WGBH members announcing the signing of a new “Masterpiece Theatre” underwriter.

PBS ombudsman Michael Getler said that although he does not believe PBS producers tailor content to please corporate sponsors, he has concerns about the perceptions created when commercial interests back public TV shows. He noted that a two-part “American Experience” series about Las Vegas last year was financed in part by some of the city’s institutions, including the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

“The bottom line is a question of whether people trust what they see,” Getler said. “People trust PBS generally, but is it an area where that trust could be eroded if it’s not handled very, very adroitly and carefully? Yes, I think it could be.”