What Effect Will More Corporate Ads and Interrupted Programming Really Have on PBS?

At PBS's recent annual gathering it was announced that the number and frequency of promotions for corporate sponsors would increase during a few noted programs as an experiment.
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At PBS's recent annual gathering in Orlando, FL, the push was on for more dollars with the announcement that the number and frequency of promotions for corporate sponsors would increase during a few noted programs as an experiment starting this fall. These sponsors were referred to as "underwriters" rather than "advertisers," I presume in hopes that it would be an easier swallow for those in the room. Many of the attending PBS member stations had already voiced their displeasure at the increased programming rates they are being charged, causing some stations to consider dropping some PBS programs and going to independent sources for their content ("PBS Plans Promotional Breaks Within Programs," The New York Times, May 31, 2011). The plan is for the immensely popular science programs Nova and Nature to feature four breaks for foundation and corporate spots, as opposed to those long and disruptive promotions that occur now at the beginning and end of PBS programs, some lasting as long as 8 minutes.

The other night, I watched about a half-dozen ads at the beginning of The News Hour With Jim Lehrer following his introduction, with more ads and previews of programs to come between the end of the broadcast and the beginning of Washington Week, followed by an appeal from President Neil Shapiro of my local PBS station, Channel 13, for donations -- a dizzying experience. Surely the threat of a mass exodus of viewers during these promotion and ad marathons must have become a concern to PBS, leading them to this new idea of smaller message blocks during the shows and eliminating sponsor promotions between programs. It would seem to me, however, that more ads would create more opportunities for viewers to reach for the clicker, not less, and producers of some shows expressed concern that this new format may not work with all PBS programming.

My question is, how will PBS maintain the high quality of these programs when they must now deal with interruptions from ads and promotional material, siphoning off precious airtime? The plan is for 4 "commercial" breaks to run for under 2 minutes each per program, which still offers more airtime for the shows than the networks. Still, this has to be considered by many longtime viewers like myself to be a big step in the wrong direction for a public, non-profit network that for decades delivered uninterrupted programming of an extraordinary variety and quality. Was it not that variety, quality and lack of advertising that made PBS so desirable to foundations and the donor public in the first place? In covering the story last Tuesday, The Times used the term "sponsor messages" in a weak effort to downplay the scope of PBS's sellout. Even the title of the piece -- which appeared in the business section of The Times -- distracted readers from the true story. One also wonders if these new changes will be of interest to the FCC.

PBS already receives support from sources that would likely make its viewers uncomfortable, like billionaire and Tea Party puppet-master David H. Koch, who was an underwriter of the episode of Nova entitled "The Secrets of The Parthenon." Other less than stellar corporate sponsors of PBS programming include Exxon Mobil, Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, BP (!), Archer Daniels Midland, Monsanto, Pfizer and Merck. One wonders if "da money" being spent by Koch and his corporate cronies on these programs might have any influence over news programs such as The News Hour, whose Health Unit is produced in partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which has vast holdings in the health industry. It came as no surprise to this viewer that during the heated debates leading up to the passage of the Affordable Care Act, no single-payer advocates - either from independent organizations or the medical community - appeared on The News Hour to discuss a different approach to healthcare reform.

Jim Lehrer, anchor and managing editor of The News Hour, stepped down on June 6th after 36 years, so there may be an opportunity to change that program's content and increasingly stale format and introduce some new energy. It would certainly benefit from increased diversity in its invited guests, moving away from their "old white guy" dominated roster of "experts" consisting mainly of present and former politicians, high ranking military officials, academics and policy wonks from conservative and centrist think tanks like the Brookings Institution. Different voices should be recruited like John Podesta from the Center For American Progress and Robert Reich, and how about including some women and minority representatives, including those from the fastest growing ethnic population in the country -- Latinos? Where are the voices of the people?

Some terrific choices for new experts to appear on The News Hour would include:

  • On healthcare, Paloma Izquierdo-Hernandez, President and CEO of the Urban Health Plan, with three health clinics in the South Bronx and a new facility in Queens catering to underserved and poor communities. Her father, Dr. Richard Izquierdo, built his first clinic in 1974 with borrowed money and was recognized for his monumental achievements in healthcare when he received the Surgeon General's Medal in 2007.

  • On legislative issues like immigration and jobs, Congressman Jose Serrano (D-NY) who serves the Bronx and is a strong voice for Latinos.
  • On civil rights and issues affecting children, Marian Wright Edelman, who has championed children's causes for almost forty years with her organization, the Children's Defense Fund. They fight for the rights of homeless, abused and disabled children, acting as their voice and advocating for changes in laws like those governing adoption. Ms. Edelman got her start working in the civil rights movement defending civil rights workers in Mississippi in the summer of '64, winding up in jail herself. So much could be said about this America icon and her humanitarian work.
  • On education, Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of schools in Washington, DC. She now operates her own advocacy organization called Students First.
  • On labor and food safety issues, Arturo Rodriguez, President of United Farm Workers, an organization that has made great contributions to the lives of farm worker, beginning with the inspired leadership of Cesar Chavez, whom we should never forget. It was Cesar in the 1980's who brought attention to the dangers of pesticides in our food supply and its dangers to field workers and consumers, and the UFW continues to serve on the front lines today as we deal with new environmental hazards and health threats brought on by industrialized farming, pesticides and food-borne diseases.
  • FAIR (Fairness And Accuracy In Reporting) has done terrific work in documenting The News Hour's failings in providing balanced reporting and its elitist proclivities in choosing guest experts. FAIR has gone so far as to even suggest that The News Hour be dropped in favor of Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez's Democracy Now!. At least PBS should consider offering both programs. Democracy Now! is on 900 NPR stations, so it would also be an enticing prospect financially. And let us not forget the loss of Bill Moyers and his Journal, which is deeply felt by this writer and has created a great void in presenting those "other" voices PBS so dearly needs.

    Airtime for advertising may have been a concern during the annual meeting, but my concerns are about unbalanced reporting in PBS's flagship news program and the potential dangers of corporate sponsors with agendas influencing programming. 140 stations carry PBS, so its reach remains large and impacting. Even so, with more and more airtime being given to corporate interests, I wonder if the fiercely independent and unflinching PBS we have known and loved should be added to the endangered species list?

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