September 24, 2009
An Open Letter to WETA
Allow me to set the stage. Having just finished viewing another excellent
edition of the Newshour with Jim Lehrer, I was washing dishes with the TV
still tuned — I thought — to WETA. I wasn't paying attention at first when I
heard that nameless but instantly familiar movie commercial voice: "When
all hope seems lost ... [Clive Owen and other actors speaking over inspirational
music ...] what you need the most [more dialog and music] ... is closer
than you think. This fall, from the director of Shine, and the producer of
Billy Elliot: The Boys are Back, rated PG-13. Exclusive engagement starts
At first I wondered why my TiVo had switched the channel to a commercial
network. But when I returned to the TV, I saw that, no, this was indeed
What gives? If that wasn't a commercial then nothing is. Yes, I understand
that no product claims were made, and there was no call to action, so that
by your narrow definition this was not a "commercial" but an "underwriting
statement." But whom are you kidding? Yes, this commercial didn't
interrupt programming: it appeared between shows. This makes it slightly
less irritating than most commercials, but that's the best one can say.
I'm a WETA member and have been for years. I'm not easily outraged (really!),
but I am now. I'm seriously considering an end to my support of your station.
Over the years I've put up with the ever-increasing encroachment of commercial
messages into public television, but this crosses a line.
I realize you have difficult financial choices to make. But at some point
you must ask yourself what principles are so important that you would forego
revenue rather than violate them.
You've apparently made your decision. Now I must make mine.
Posted by cradle at September 24, 2009 8:44 PM
Did you send this directly to them?
Man, this is the kind of thing I generally sigh and accept, because I am weak!
I totally sent that to WETA, on their feedback form. I fully expect to be invited to speak at the next board meeting.
This was the response:
Dear Mr. Eisner,
Thank you for taking the time to share your reservations about corporate sponsorship credits on public television.
There certainly are more underwriting credits on public broadcasting now than there were 20 years ago. In large part, that reflects public broadcasting's response to federal government funding cutbacks in the 1980s. If stations and producers were going to continue to create and broadcast programs such as "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," "Washington Week," "Frontline," "NOVA," "Masterpiece Theatre," "Nature," "The Civil War," and so on, they would have to replace lost funding. While we ramped up efforts to raise more support from individuals like you, a push for much greater corporate and foundation support was necessary as well. Truly, if corporate support went away, so, too, would many of our programs.
Thus, the increase in sponsorships reflect both a greater effort to court corporate donors to help underwrite production costs, and an increased interest by corporations in reaching public broadcasting's audiences (which, as you likely know, tend to be older, wealthier, and better educated than audiences for commercial stations).
The kind of underwriting credits on the air have evolved as a matter of more sophisticated production technology. General FCC rules about underwriting spots on public TV have not changed. In essence, the standard guidelines for a spot hold that the message can be informational, but cannot overtly sell or promote products, make comparisons between products, or make an explicit or implicit call to action. All sponsorship credits on our air adhere to those rules.
Unlike commercial broadcasting, we do not interrupt programs with sponsorship credits, either. That is a practice that is strongly opposed by WETA and by most public broadcasting institutions. Programs run their length from beginning to end. Sponsorship credits air between shows along with all other interstitial and promotional material, including station IDs. The only "exception" would be for intermissions during lengthy, multi-part programs that might run back-to-back. (FCC rules require program breaks for station identification).
In an ideal world, we would have all the money we need to produce and broadcast our programs without having to count on charitable contributions or using air time to credit individuals and institutions for their support. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Support from individual viewers like you, foundations and corporations combined makes up about 65 percent of WETA's budget. Without it, there would be no WETA. While we wish 100 percent of our air time could be filled with programs alone, we are also grateful for the support that enables us to get our program on the air -- yours included.
Audience Service Coordinator
Membership and Audience Support
WETA TV26 / Classical WETA 90.9FM