PBS inserting spots into the middle of programming


Are you aware of PBS inserting commercials into the middle of its programming—both streaming and on-air? Well they currently are for streaming and the TV broadcast inserts are coming. Many local broadcasters probably don’t even know that the pubcaster is set to dip into their pockets. Instead of airing breaks every 50 minutes, as PBS does now, it will air them every 15 minutes beginning this fall. Nature and Nova are two of the shows that will contain corporate and foundation sponsor ads, promotional messages and branding every 15 minutes.

Lou Wiley, retired after 30 years at WGBH in Boston, was surprised to see commercials interrupting the series he formerly helped supervise. So much so, he penned an article about it in Current.org:

“I am alarmed by two “experiments” PBS has embraced that will insert commercials into the body of its programs. One has already begun. Online commercial ads are being rolled in at various points during video streaming on PBS.org. The other project, just announced, involves the on-air broadcast…Even though the current plan is to “test” interrupting on a limited basis, the practice will soon spread. What sponsor, especially corporate sponsor, would accept seeing another get placement inside a program and not demand the same? These profound changes not only cross a Rubicon into outright embrace of commercialism but will seriously compromise the quality of what the PBS audience sees on television and online.”

He discovered PBS’s online experiment by accident, watching a recent Frontline magazine piece on the abuse by priests of Native America children in Alaska. An upbeat Goldman Sachs branding ad popped up right after a particularly heartfelt comment by one interviewee. “My reaction was disbelief. I thought it was just a technical snafu,” he said.

We at RBR-TVBR noticed just recently that one of the local PBS stations is selling on-air spots to non-profits, which is legal since they are selling non-commercial products such as concert/museum tickets. They carry text along the bottom saying something like “Paid for by the Ringling Museum of Art” – probably so other organizations will know they won’t get similar spots for free.

Nonetheless, for producers of long-form documentaries, drama and music, inserting advertising and/or sponsor and promotional spots into their work means a fundamental shift in storytelling: Films and performances will have to be designed as commercial programs are designed–to accommodate the commercials, with five-minute introductory segments and five-minute closers. Plot lines will need to be reconfigured,” Wiley notes.

Yes, the move in this direction may be slowly destroying the differences between PBS and the commercial media, but whether or not the way the shows are constructed may not have to be changed that much. The goal for PBS would be to keep the pods as short as possible.

RBR-TVBR observation: There is a fine line already between regular spots and what PBS has been running. But traditionally, they’ve been limited to the beginning and end of the shows. PBS needs to consider the drop off of audience when these spots hit the fan: “I just donated $100 dollars to this station so I wouldn’t have to see ads!”

Yes, this could end up pulling dollars out of the pockets of broadcasters because advertisers are more likely to embrace middle-of-the-show positioning. But the FCC is unlikely to do anything about it, given Congress’ ideas on defunding public broadcasting. If there are no funds, then PBS or any public broadcaster should have the right to sell ads to remain viable. This is certainly one step in that direction. As we know, fundraising isn’t what it used to be with this economy.