When the facts of PBS life collide online

There are several enduring aspects of public television. One is that it is always pressed for money. Another is that it presents programs without commercial interruption. These two facts of life — one a necessity to stay alive, the other a pleasure for viewers absorbed in a drama, documentary or concert — have recently come into conflict. This is taking place not on the traditional television broadcasts of PBS’ major national programs, but rather on the rapidly growing world of online video, where vastly increasing numbers of viewers watch these programs.

Late last month, PBS began “experimenting” with a new format for the online video presentations of its major nationally broadcast TV programs — everything from “Masterpiece” to “Frontline” but not including children’s programs — in which very brief, 15-30 seconds, “sponsorship” messages from commercial companies appear once or twice during a typical hour-long program, not just before or after the presentation as is usually the case with the television broadcasts.

At the moment, this appears to be, and may remain, a minor conflict. It may be perfectly understandable and acceptable to those who watch PBS programs online rather than on the tube. Only a handful of people have written to me or called about this, and their letters are posted below. But this is still a very new development and, while just an experiment at this stage, it struck me as a potentially fundamental change in approach that was worth recording.

Aside from the conceptual change, the reason for the letters below appears to have at least as much to do with the most prominent sponsor so far, the investment giant Goldman Sachs. That firm clearly has a right to present a basically “goodwill” message, and if I were in that firm I would see how it might help its damaged image — among non-employees — to be associated with PBS. But to some viewers, it has apparently added insult to injury.

PBS Explains

In response to viewer concerns, PBS’ Audience Services explained:

“Regarding the use of sponsored messages in our online video experience, PBS is experimenting with new ways to generate revenue in order to continue providing the free quality online content you’ve come to expect. We take your feedback very seriously, and we thank you for taking the time to share your opinion.

“PBS’ content and services are the result of a public-private partnership involving support from individuals, businesses, state and federal governments, foundations and educational institutions. As a current sponsor of PBS.org, Goldman Sachs is one of many organizations that make it possible for us to provide our online content for free to the more than 20 million unique visitors who access our site each month. PBS has strict underwriting guidelines in place. Funders are prohibited from exercising editorial control over content.”

I also talked with Jason Seiken, senior vice president for PBS Interactive, who masterminds PBS’ online presence and who sees the need for this new revenue stream as necessary because PBS has become, in a sense, “a victim of our own success,” meaning a growth from two million to 115 million online video views monthly. Seiken says there are more than 1,000 hours of full length video available free to consumers on PBS.org and that “dwarfs anything anyone else has done.”

But unlike broadcasting, where there are fixed costs that don’t vary with the number of local viewers, there are some very small costs to PBS for each online video view associated with Internet servers, and those costs build up as the audience expands. So, he explains, PBS is “trying to be creative about offsetting those costs.” He says the mid-program sponsorship trial run will last about six months, that a lot of research went into the plan’s evolution, that there was consultation with a PBS advisory board, and that these sponsorship messages will be placed at logical and natural transition points in a program.

We’ll see how this works out.

Here Are the Letters

I have to admit that I wasn’t exactly surprised to have my “Upstairs, Downstairs” program interrupted with an advertisement, but Goldman Sachs?!!? Really? I suppose if you’re going to sell out you might as well go straight to the devil. Pathetic.

Benjamin Berlowitz, Pacific Grove, CA

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I watch a good deal of the online programs. One of the reasons I subscribe to and support PBS is the lack of commercials. I do not appreciate, therefore, watching “Masterpiece” with the constant interruptions by “Tom’s of Maine” exhorting me to buy their damned toothpastes, etc. Why not just put the sponsoring party at the beginning and get it over with? One might as well be watching commercial broadcasting. Tasteless!!!! Exploitive!!!

Nancy Lea, Selma, AL

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Just a quick note to say that I watch Masterpiece online and in the past two weeks, commercials for Goldman Sachs have popped up in the middle of the program! 2-3 times! I was shocked the first time and then became distracted from the program by them. Is this permanent? I’ve admired and subscribed to PBS primarily for the programming and secondarily because they do not have commercials. Please inform the powers-that-be (programmers? advertisers?) that these commercials may lose the organization its viewers. They really break up the continuity of the programs.

… I appreciate the producer’s/PBS’s desire to generate/increase revenue, but if no one watches because of the distractions, there is little point. It could also create an animosity toward that advertiser (Goldman Sachs) for interrupting programs the public is used to watching commercial free.

South Euclid, OH

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Why is PBS interrupting programming to show commercials, and why are these commercials for Goldman Sachs? Goldman Sachs nearly brought down the world economy; I find commercials from them in the middle of PBS programming most distasteful.

Claremont, CA

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My experience was that the new player, and all the ads that come with it, make Frontline virtually unwatchable online. The ads are popping up throughout viewing, AND the small chapter windows are freezing in place in the player window, blocking the subtitles! The old format was perfect, why did they “fix” what wasn’t broken. I understand that ad sales are part of the new online viewing experience, but this is out of hand. You’re going to lose your valuable online customers if this keeps up, and I’ll be first to go. Please let me know you’ve fixed this.

Ron McGill, Irvine, CA

Where Do Those Profits Go?

In keeping with the theme of sponsorships on PBS, I get a small but fairly steady stream of emails from viewers who are upset by the association of certain companies with public broadcasting and with the content of their messages. Lately, the principal villain appears to be Chevron, the global oil goliath, which is a prominent sponsor of the PBS NewsHour and whose on-air message sort of comes right at you in confronting the question of where all those profits go.

Maybe this means it’s a good promotional piece because at one point, especially, it got my attention as well. That’s when an on-screen person says about Chevron, “We pumped 21 billion dollars into local economies, into small businesses, communities, equipment, materials.” That’s an awful lot of dough, and the “communities” angle is what stuck in my head as a viewer. When I checked the company website, I found a lot of reports about investment in communities. But a lot of them are in other countries where Chevron also operates. That’s fine, but the impression I got from the spoken message, which caused me to focus on it, was that this is money invested in the U.S.

I have been promised a response from Chevron and the NewsHour to the letters posted below, all of them critical. It hasn’t arrived as of this posting time, but I will add it to this post as soon as it arrives.

On Chevron

I am dismayed that the NewsHour would run a promotion for Chevron that is blatantly false. The ad states something like “every penny and more goes to bringing us energy.” What about their record profits? What about their massive PR campaign (including this commercial)? By not checking the facts on your ads you give lie to Jim Lehrer’s statement that “at the NewsHour we care about the facts and only the facts.”

Carl Homstad, Decorah, IA

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You really need to screen commercials for blatant lies and other versions of misinformation. Chevron is running a commercial on the NewsHour that begins by stating that they post huge profits, then asks the question “Where does that money go?” or something to that effect. A nice girl answers: Every penny of it goes to deliver energy throughout the world.

This is the blatant lie. It is an obvious blatant lie. While I HATE IT that the NewsHour is compromised by having to run corporate commercials, I will NOT continue to support PBS if the NEWSHOUR continues to run Chevron or other commercials that are propaganda LIES! That is such a BIG LIE that it fits in with the most vile propaganda mechanisms — the Lie: make it big and make it often. The NewsHour commentators should be taking that Chevron commercial to task, not introducing the program with it.

Elizabeth Rainwater, Powell, TN

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Robert Flynn, Vice President for Communications at the NewsHour, regarding the criteria used to decide whether a corporate sponsor is retained, says, “Once we have partnered with a funder we feel a loyalty toward that funder unless there is a specific reason why we should back away from them; for instance, malfeasance in their operations, indictments, convictions, etc.”

Chevron ” … was … found guilty in 2011 of massively polluting the Amazon, [but] the company still refuses to clean up its mess,” according to Rainforest Action Network. Chevron was indicted and convicted, Mr. Flynn. So why are they still a sponsor? Huh?

Scott Fisher, Rochester, NY

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It is troubling to me to see all the Big Oil ads on KQED TV extolling the virtues of companies like Chevron, Exxon and Shell in the development of alternative energies. As anyone can see from annual reports, the research budgets for oil exploration by these firms dwarfs the paltry amounts they are spending on alternative fuel R&D. Using PBS air time to promote the “good environmentalist” image of oil companies is a real conflict for me.

Stew Plock, Palo Alto, CA

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I love the NewsHour dearly, and have nothing but good things to say about the staff and content of that fine program. The advertisements, though, especially a recent one by Chevron, leave me cold.

In one particularly grating commercial Chevron addresses the topic of its record profits by claiming that “every penny and more” of them are re-invested in delivering energy throughout the world or pumped into local communities. Since Chevron has paid a dividend to its stock holders every quarter for the last several years and also paid large corporate salaries and bonuses to its staff, this statement can only be false. I do understand the need for corporate sponsorship, but does this really require the Newshour to run blatantly false advertising for large corporations? Shame on them.

Mark Randal, San Francisco, CA

This column was originally published on PBS.org on May 12, 2011.

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