In the linear television world, for a truly national release, that leaves PBS and its affiliated public television stations as “the only game in town.” Alas, as a general rule, PBS member stations themselves don’t pay license fees for content (although many still produce content of local or regional interest). In recent years, station operating and programming budgets have been slashed. Content and programming decisions have been moved “offshore” to outside organizations. On the national level, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) itself generally reserves its content production and acquisition budgets for specific programming initiatives.
Today, the search is on for the next Downton Abbey or Daniel Tiger. Dues collected by PBS from member stations also finance, in part, the production of pledge programming (concerts, self-help lecture shows by best-selling authors, etc.) — shows designed to encourage viewers to support their local stations (monetary pledges in return for premiums — books, DVDs, audio CDs, concert tickets, and the satisfaction of supporting public television). Long-running primetime series (Nature, NOVA, TheAmerican Experience, American Masters, Frontline, Independent Lens, POV, etc.) commission new programs and occasionally, acquire completed ones, but placing a completed program with any of them is difficult; they prefer to work with producers they know well and trust. Most of these ongoing series (or strands) are produced by such major public television stations as WNET (New York), WGBH (Boston), WTTW (Chicago), or WETA (Washington, DC). . The strands themselves are primarily financed on an annual or multi-annual basis, by corporations and foundations.
Aside from these strands, PBS-member stations get most of their programming for “free,” (aka “fully-underwritten”) because, they are, after all, providing the “eyeballs” — the viewers (and the PBS audience demographic is outstanding, if a bit older). But of course, nothing in life is free. So it is left to independent producers to organize financing for their projects on their own. Many programs and series are presented and exchanged within the system by public television stations themselves; many more come from independent producers and distributors.
Janson Media is one such independent distributor. Our PTS division manages national public television syndication campaigns, acting as a Presenter (similar to a Presenting Station) or a Distributor (terms that are somewhat interchangeable). These campaigns must be managed effectively on many levels — creative, legal, and technical – as well as from a “marketing” standpoint, as PBS program executives must be convinced to add a program to their schedule (and replace another), and to find an effective time slot for it. In the commercial syndication world, this is called “clearing markets.”
Public Television Syndication (PTS) campaigns are typically paid for by corporate or foundation underwriters who want to be associated with the program or series and put their good name in front of the highly-coveted PBS demographic and a nationwide audience. This is usually done via the mechanism of the 15 or 30-second “enhanced underwriting credit” at the top and tail of each program airing. Underwriters may also receive credits on DVDs and websites and on any and all educational outreach and promotional efforts. Occasionally, campaigns are paid for with private financing, sometimes uncredited in either the spots or the credit rolls.
When financing a national Public Television Syndication (PTS) campaign, it is of vital importance to understand the PBS self-interest rule, which forbids program funders that have a “vested interest” in the content of a program. This rule seeks to prevent the over-commercialization of our public television airwaves, and helps to keep public television as an independent voice in an overwhelmingly corporate-dominated media landscape. Program producers must raise their finance independently of any “pay for play” funders. Even the appearance or the perception of “pay for play” can be problematic with some public television programmers, and rightfully so. And yet, ironically, a great deal of daytime programming on PBS member stations in the lifestyle and how-to categories is inherently produced and structured with what are, clearly, product placements. Cooking shows, travel shows, sewing and knitting and baking shows, etc. So too, PBS pledge (fund-raising) shows are virtual infomercials for book authors and publishers, or for performing artists. So the financing mechanisms at work in the public television landscape are arcane, to say the least. Still, PTS is careful to avoid taking on the distribution of programs which have clearly been financed or sponsored by “pay for play” funders. If there is an issue of perception only, but the editorial content is truly independent of a sponsor’s influence, we will sometimes take on distribution.
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