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PBS changing its spots

January 19, 1987

Budget shortfall forces public TV into ad business

By Tom Sowa
The Spokesman-Review

Noticed more commercials on PBS lately?

They’re not called commercials, but those short advertising messages before and after programs on KSPS or KUID from Moscow are sold and presented not much differently than the ads on other area stations.

The PBS spots are called “underwriting” – a nice word to explain the subtle difference between “Come on down and buy a Buick today” and “Local broadcast of ‘Nova’ is made possible in part by a grant from Becker Buick, Spokane’s exclusive Buick dealer.”

The winds of public television have shifted in recent years. No longer will you hear KSPS call itself “commercial-free television.” KSPS, Spokane’s Public Broadcast Service station (Channel 7), now welcomes advertisers – uh, corporate underwriters – with open arms.

Compared to the money pulled in by the three network affiliates here, KSPS rakes in relatively little in underwriting.

But the station wants that amount — $118,000 last year – to increase.

The major reason for heavier reliance on advertising is the federal government, says Channel 7’s general manger, Claude Kistler.

According to Kistler, stations like KSPS face continuing budget cuts under the Reagan administration. Hit by decreased levels of federal support and forced either to cut back services or find more money in the community, PBS stations across the country have turned to businesses for help.

With that effort, however, comes assurances that KSPS isn’t ready to sell Burger King or Rainier beer to keep “Sesame Street” on the air.

The station has the option of selling messages up to 30 seconds in length. But KSPS intends to maintain its current limit at 15 seconds per individual underwriter, says Kistler.

That doesn’t stop local viewers from running into 30 seconds of advertisements, however. That happens when the station runs three 10-second spots consecutively, as it does right before or right after ‘The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” or other popular programs.

PBS stations in larger cities are becoming more aggressive, permitting longer spots and allowing for “infomercials,” messages up to 60 seconds long made by a company spokesman.

But KSPS isn’t heading that way, Kistler says. “We don’t want to get into the appearance of commercialization.”

Until the FCC changed regulations in 1984, a business could give money to underwrite any PBS show. But all viewers would see was the name of the company and hear a short statement about its support.

In 1984, the new rules allowed local stations to also show the company’s logo and deliver a quiet, low-key statement about the product.

What the FCC won’t permit is showing an advertiser’s product in use or making statements that compare one business or item with another. KSPS also won’t allow a representative from the company to appear in the spot, and it requires every message to be read only by its own announcer, Frank Dalton.

The relaxed FCC rules make a great difference, says Kistler. Before the change, companies that put money into underwriting were essentially making donations. Once the FCC loosened the boundaries, local stations found advertisers more inclined to pay money for commercial messages.

The new rules give businesses more value for their money, Kistler says.

“What they find now is that underwriting generates promotional and marketing value for the company,” Kistler says.

The change, however, has not gone unnoticed by KSPS viewers. Some expressed their annoyance by writing or calling the station.

Christy Himmelright, a KSPS station supporter and pledge volunteer, especially dislikes the references to products on KSPS.

“What gets me is the ads now are different than mere sponsorship, the way it was before when the station ran a simple statement. It’s turned the spots into promotional advertisements that are like – not as bad as – but a lot like the commercials you find on commercial stations.”

Kistler understands that station loyalists are sensitive to the issue of underwriting. The station’s own history is partly the problem. During the first eight years – 1967 to 1967, KSPS viewers saw hardly a hint of commercial messages. The most they whiffed was the occasional sponsor tagline attached to shows like “Masterpiece Theatre” or “Cosmos.”

Kistler responds to criticism by pointing out the overall funding picture at KSPS. Out of a total programming and operating budget of $2.2 million, commercial underwriting provided the station 6 percent, or $118,00, in 1986.

Another $390,000 comes to the station from School District 81, the owner of KSPS. That money, however, is regarded as a separate fund and is used only for educational program administration, not engineering or program acquisition, Kistler says.

In 1985, the underwriting at KSPS was $103,000. Kistler wants to see it grow to $130,000 in 1987.

But, he adds, advertisers – national and local – spend more than $27 million in this market every year. “Our $118,000 is less than 1 percent of that total. I certainly think there’s room in the region for public broadcasting to get its share of support.”

The level of support is about the same – adjusting for scale – as the support received by KUID, one of three Idaho public stations. KUID operates out of Moscow and is carried by cable systems in Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint.

KUID received about $22,000 in corporate underwriting last year, according to Cathy Rouyer, KUID development director. That’s nearly 6 percent of the station’s operating budget.

KWSU, a PBS station operated out of Washington State University, received no corporate underwriting in 1986. “We’re simply not staffed to do that much in that area,” says Dennis Haarsager, KWSU’s general manager. The station intends to seek corporate support in 1988, he adds.

The heaviest attack against KSPS’s underwriting comes from Bob Hamacher, who operates KAYU-TV, one of the five commercial channels competing with Channel 7 for advertisers in this market.

While most local TV managers don’t like seeing KSPS joining the ad battle here, they generally acknowledge public television needs a way to find money in the face of reduced federal funding.

Hamacher, though, pulls no punches in his criticism.

“In a way they’ve changed the rules they started with. When it came into the market, KSPS was supposed to be an educational station. Now they’re a direct competitor with the commercial stations, plus they have the advantage of soliciting funds that I don’t have,” Hamacher says.

“For one thing, the station is owned by School District 81, which is owned by the taxpayers of the community. Now what we have is taxpayers competing with each other in that private arena – on the station – as underwriters.

“As a private citizen I don’t know if that’s right. And as a station manager, I don’t have the right to have a telethon and solicit funds from my viewers directly. But they can, and they can also sell commercial time to businesses,” he says.

And, he adds, the station’s programs are not unlike those found on his or other commercial stations.

“They’re deceiving people. They were supposed to be different, to be an educational channel. But they run movies some nights at 8 p.m. like we do.”

He says he hopes PBS will follow the lead of public radio, which may be leaning away from an all-out pursuit of underwriting.

“Public radio, according to a recent article I saw in Broadcasting magazine, has decided its listeners want fewer business messages with their programming.”

Kistler, however, says KSPS’s viewers have expressed approval for a broad and varied menu of programs, including movies and musical shows. Like with many other public stations nationally, KSPS has plans to form a “partnership” with individual viewers and businesses who want to be associated with programs seen only on KSPS.

The strong reactions of viewers or station managers don’t affect what David Lockhert does at KSPS, however. Lockhert, a former ad salesman at both The Spokesman-Review/Spokane Chronicle and KREM, became KSPS’s program underwriting director in mid-1986.

Lockhert stays in touch with current corporate underwriters as well as developing new accounts. He’s also responsible for finding the right “look” for any advertiser. A bank, for instance, talks to him before agreeing that a short video of a babbling brook might be appropriate for its image, Lockhert says.

Or a Cadillac dealer might work with Lockhert before deciding to use a tape of its shiniest vehicle seated primly in a garden glade at Manito Park.

“What’s unusual here is that I’m busy enough with people calling me that I don’t have time to go out and hunt up new accounts,” says Lockhert. “People see the spots and get in touch with us. That’s especially the case with Canadian companies, because we have a policy to not actively look for underwriting across the border.”

One firm line the station does draw is between acceptable and inappropriate underwriting. “For example, I don’t think our idea of the station as quality programming would mean we’d accept a spot from a tavern or nightclub,” says Lockhert.

He’s also lost some accounts when the station and advertiser can’t agree on the appropriate “soft-sell” approach in a spot.

The cost per spot – as is the case for any station – depends on time of day and number of times the message will be repeated over the week or month. The average 15-second spot costs about $85, says Lockhert.

If nothing else, KSPS’s programs now give area businesses an alternate way of presenting their name and image to the public.

Tim Murphy, vice president of Central Pre-Mix Concrete Co., decided to sign a six-month underwriting contract with KSPS for a number of reasons. The company has been in business since 1930, says Murphy, and spends relatively little for TV or radio commercials.

Hyping his business, in other words, wasn’t the prime reason for the KSPS spots.

“I’m just sort of curious what kind of reaction we’re going to get,” says Murphy. So far none of his customers – primarily contractors – has mentioned the ads, produced at the station with the help of a Spokane agency.

“But what I want to accomplish isn’t sales. It’s just a matter of keeping our name in front of the public and trying to be a good corporate citizen in the community.

“We’ll try it (the campaign of underwriting) for six months and see how it turns out,” Murphy says.

Monday, January 19, 1987

From → KSPS

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