Sesame Street Meets Madison Avenue

PBS wants us to believe that it isn't selling kids to the highest bidder.

| Fri Mar. 30, 2001 1:00 AM PST

From the PBS.org Web site:

"PBS KIDS programs are commercial-free and do not seek to sell anything to young viewers except the fun and excitement of learning."

From the sponsorship.pbs.org Web site:

"'Teletubbies,' the groundbreaking children's series based on extensive research with children, is available for sponsorship by your company. Teletubbies has earned the unanimous support of parents, children, and industry leaders, an audience that is right within your grasp!"

PBS now has advertising. They just don't call it advertising; they call it "underwriting" and "sponsorship." The result is something even worse than the blatant commercialism of network television: it's commercial television masquerading as non-commercial television.

You probably think that PBS was forced into carrying quasi-advertising -- like the Volvo ads on NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and the ExxonMobil lovefest now synonymous with "Masterpiece Theater" -- because Congress, led by Newt Gingrich, declared war on PBS in the mid-1990s and slashed its subsidy. And you may even grudgingly accept a Juicy Juice spot between "Arthur" and "Sesame Street"; you figure that without those sponsorship dollars, your kid's only programming option would be "Pokémon" with Hot Wheels and Ho-Ho ads.

But that isn't why PBS is no longer commercial-free. PBS has advertising because it wants to play with the big boys, especially in the hot kids' TV market, and that costs money.

Tom Epstein, vice president of communication for PBS, says federal funds for the network have actually been increasing in recent years. The expansion of corporate underwriting, he says, is intended to help PBS attract more and flashier shows in order to compete with commercial broadcast and cable channels.

"We've got to have the money to achieve the production values" of the children's programs on cable television networks such as Nickelodeon, he says. "There's much more competition than there was 30 years ago. And we can't keep showing kids the same old shows if we want to keep them watching."

A look at PBS's Web site shows that the network is either in denial about just how much of its soul is in hock, or that it is willing to mislead the public about just how cozy it is getting with its sponsors, especially when it comes to children's programming. While the network's "children's programming philosophy" includes an apparently strict policy of no advertising on children's shows, a close look reveals that "no advertising" actually turns out to mean no corporate messages during kids' programs, but plenty immediately before and after.

There is ample opportunity for "sponsors" to buy time during PBS KIDS programming, despite assurances to parents that kids are shielded from PBS's gradual sellout. On the network's sponsorship site -- which requires registration and is not meant for the average viewers' eyes (use the login "motherjones" and the password "motherjones" to see for yourself) -- the network openly pitches placement on PBS KIDS shows with special attention to the ripe market that is impressionable youth: "Preschoolers are the most frequent viewers of public television among all age groups, averaging three-and-a-half hours of PBS viewing every week."

And corporate America is buying. I was watching "Sesame Street" with my 6-year-old nephew recently, and sure enough, the kids' classic is still "brought to you by the letter H and the number 5." But it is also "made possible by" pharmaceutical giant and Viagra-maker Pfizer, which "brings parents the letter Z, as in Zithromax." Zithromax, for the uninitiated, is a powerful antibiotic sometimes prescribed for children's ear infections. Note how the company is careful to say the message is aimed at parents, and not the kids. (The spot features children and a zebra frolicking, and a giant colorful tumbling wooden block with the letter "Z" on its side -- parents love playing with blocks.)

The careful wording is no accident. The Federal Communications Commission and PBS limit the kind of messages that can be broadcast on "non-commercial" public television. "Donor acknowledgements" may identify companies and brands, but not promote them or make comparative statements about them. PBS further limits messages during children's programs, Epstein says, restricting their length to 15 seconds, requiring each to contain a message of "support for kids and education" and prohibiting mascots, "spokescharacters," or pictures of products that may cause kids to ask their parents to buy for them.

But as Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting pointed out last year, the rules have some mighty big loopholes. The Zithromax spot is a good example: the zebra in the Zithromax spot is a real zebra, and not "Max," Pfizer's Zithromax mascot. Will kids know the difference or care? And Libby's is pleased with its product placement on "Arthur," as it says on the PBS sponsorship pages: "Libby's Juicy Juice 100% juice takes great pride in its reputation for providing quality juice that kids love and parents trust. What better way, then, for Juicy Juice to reach millions of parents and children and reinforce the brand's quality than to sponsor PBS's most popular children's program, Arthur?"

PBS and the Children's Television Workshop even participated in a marketing conference in New York last year called "Play-Time, Snack-Time, Tot-Time: Targeting Preschoolers and Their Parents." In a letter of protest, Ralph Nader and Commercial Alert wrote: "If the Children's Television Workshop actually believes its own 'commitment to the betterment of children,' it cannot possibly assist corporate advertisers in their efforts to get children to nag their parents, sow intra-family strife, or sell junk food to American children who already suffer skyrocketing levels of childhood obesity, etc."

Does PBS get complaints from parents? "Rarely," says Epstein. "Not from real people. Mostly from FAIR, and from others when FAIR sends out one of its messages about us."

Bits and Pieces

GLOW-IN-THE-DARK SMILES
An anti-nuke group tested babies' teeth in South Florida and found that the tots had mouths full of radioactive chompers. A report from the Radiation and Public Health Project blames the high levels of the carcinogenic Strontium-90 on emissions from South Florida's two nuclear power plants. The levels found rivaled those in tests performed in the 1960s, when the US still performed above-ground nuclear weapons tests. -- Emily Huber

THE FUTILITY OF CAMPAIGN FINANCE
While Senate Democrats and Republicans are sparring over campaign finance legislation, a presumed candidate in the New Jersey gubernatorial race is already demonstrating the difficulty of accomplishing real reform. The Democratic candidate recently published a campaign pamphlet masquerading as a newspaper that takes the cake for blurring the line between political propaganda and the exercising of First Amendment rights. -- Amos Kenigsberg

MOYERS, EAT YOUR HEART OUT
Back in 1994 Sierra magazine blew the lid off the chemical industry's underhanded efforts to cover its toxic trail.

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