Broadcast schmooze

With the program over, the image of a couple enjoying their pots and pans flashes on the TV screen. This is All-Clad cookware, the voice-over informs us, "the great conductor, available at Dillard's."

Welcome to public television--Dallas style.
For decades, public television has billed itself as "listener-supported" and "commercial-free." But in recent years, KERA-Channel 13 has granted increasing freedom to underwriters to tout their wares, in ways that today are difficult to distinguish from commercials on network stations.

The local policy--calculated to draw corporate cash--has placed the Dallas station at the forefront of an impending battle with the Public Broadcasting Service, which has proposed rules to punish local affiliates whose underwriter "announcements" too closely resemble commercials.

The PBS proposal, discussed last week in Washington, D.C., would impose a 20 percent premium on all programming a local station buys from the public-television mother ship--including such high-profile staples as the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, Sesame Street, and Barney & Friends. The penalties would kick in for any station that airs improper underwriting announcements immediately before or after PBS programs.

At KERA, where corporate sponsors have long enjoyed some of the public television system's most liberal policies about commercial messages, the station's executives are--not surprisingly--panning the proposed PBS sanctions.

"I don't think [the proposal] is going to go through," declares Richard Meyer, president of North Texas Public Broadcasting, the umbrella organization for Channel 2, Channel 13, and KERA-FM radio. "No national organization can dictate what a local station does."

KERA is one of 346 television stations that participate in PBS, which is based in Washington and cooperatively managed. Local public television executives, including Meyer, take turns serving on PBS' 35-member governing board.

Local public-station executives from across the country discussed the proposed penalties last week in Washington at their annual fall meeting. The PBS board of directors could consider the levies as soon as January.

The rules would penalize overt touting of commercial products. PBS guidelines frown upon any underwriting announcement that shows any shots of a commercial product or any non-still video. No underwriting announcement is supposed to last longer than 15 seconds.

A PBS task force proposed the rules in an attempt to shore up eroding corporate support for the public network's national programming. The corporate share of the programming budget has dropped from $89.5 million in the fiscal year ending June 30, 1992, to roughly $74 million for the same period in 1994.

And those figures, says Stu Kantor, PBS' associate director for corporate relations, understate "the difficulties that many of the national producers are having obtaining money." The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, for example, with an annual budget of roughly $26 million, has had to scramble recently to replace corporate sponsors who dropped their support for the show, according to Kantor.

The advocates of sanctions believe that lax local-station policies help affiliates steal sponsors from the national public-broadcasting network, which stringently controls its air time for promotions.

Peter Downey, PBS' senior vice president-program business affairs, explains the problem with a hypothetical example. Mobil Corporation, he says, may donate $15 million to sponsor nationally the Masterpiece Theatre series. In turn, the company gets a 15-second spot broadcast nationally with the program.

Yet a Mobil executive can turn on the television in Dallas and see Channel 13 broadcast--immediately before his company's 15-second spot--a 30-second local-underwriting acknowledgement for a rival oil company that overtly touts the local sponsor's products.

Many corporate sponsors cherry-pick among local stations, supporting only those that will give them the most bang for their charitable buck, advocates of the new rules claim. If, instead, all local stations toe the line and bar sponsors from overtly advertising their products, they say, then the overall underwriting environment will improve at both the local and national level. "The overriding imperative is that there is a need for money," PBS' Kantor says. "Everyone has to cooperate."

KERA's Meyer doesn't buy that notion. "Their rationale is completely erroneous," he says. "The argument is a real red herring."

Since the Federal Communications Commission in 1984 relaxed guidelines that allow stations to acknowledge those who help underwrite their programs and operations, KERA has remained among the most aggressive stations in terms of what it allows corporate sponsors to do in the station's local-underwriting program credits.

Meyer believes that PBS has it backwards--that it's lost corporate underwriting dollars precisely because it has adhered to excessively stringent guidelines for underwriting announcements. Rather than attempting to hem in local stations, Meyer contends, PBS should instead relax its own guidelines, permitting anything within the vague FCC standards. That, the Dallas broadcasting boss contends, would boost funding for public television while preserving its integrity.

The FCC standards specifically allow for "the broadcaster's good faith judgment." But the existing PBS guidelines--which now apply directly only to national underwriters of PBS programming--are much more explicit.

According to a copy obtained by the Observer, the PBS rules specifically bar underwriters from broadcasting suggestions, for example, that a viewer shop for a product at Dillard's. They also bar underwriters from having corporate mascots roar--or make any movements "other than incidental ones." (Explains the guidelines: "The Merrill Lynch bull or the Exxon tiger could twitch its tail, but could not be depicted running or walking" and "may not make any sounds.")

The PBS rules for product displays are even more restrictive. Products can be identified but shown only in one constant position. A station, for example, can show an airplane flying--but the aircraft must remain motionless in the frame of the picture. Actors--such as the ones on KERA who portray a couple in the kitchen wielding All-Clad cookware--constitute a PBS underwriting-credit violation. Only employees of the sponsor are supposed to appear in the funding credits, according to the PBS guidelines.

The growth in the North Texas Public Broadcasting budget bolsters Meyer's argument that allowing corporate underwriters more leeway translates into more money--at least for his local stations. In the face of nationwide cutbacks in support for public television, KERA and its sister stations' budgets have been increasing. For the fiscal year ending June 30, 1994, the stations' budgets totaled $11.5 million; those figures are expected to climb to $12.4 million for the upcoming year.

KERA administrators say about 20 percent of that money comes from corporate and foundation underwriters. KERA charges about $1,000 for a single 30-second underwriting spot. It charges the underwriters for a local broadcast of a PBS-produced program $44,000 a year. If the underwriter pays the full bill, the company gets the full 30-second spot before the show.

But even if Meyer keeps his coffers full this way, PBS executives contend, it undermines both corporate sponsorship for the national system--and the image of PBS. And that could damage public television's other critical source of funds: viewers.

"The greater the extent to which you commercialize the air," says PBS senior vice president Downey, "you are putting in jeopardy the voluntary contributions that our viewers make.

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Miriam Rozen
Contact: Miriam Rozen