The major difference between PBS and commercial broadcasters used to be, well, commercials. For-profit TV relied on ads, PBS didn’t. OK, maybe it had sponsors, but nothing so crass as commercials. Then, OK, maybe it had “enhanced” sponsor messages, which looked a lot like commercials to the layman, but at least they didn’t interrupt the shows themselves.
Now PBS is planning to have promotional spots interrupt its primetime shows themselves. What’s the difference between PBS and commercial broadcasters again?
The plan, which the New York Times reported was broached last week to member stations, would involve shifting spots from the several-minutes-long clusters of promos and, ahem, “sponsor messages” into four breaks within the nightly programs. Much of the shifted material would be ads for local and national public-TV programming, but tomato, tomahto—the upshot is that PBS has decided that its substantial blocks of commercials are long enough that viewers are tuning out when they hit them at the end of a show.
This will probably upset viewers for whom public TV is important because it’s, um, public, and not beholden to advertisers. That’s a legitimate concern, but it’s also a ship that sailed some time ago; it looks as if PBS’s plan is to take the same amount of spots and spread them out more. For now, that is—if PBS has gradually been adding more and more sponsor material over the years, why wouldn’t the next step from here be to add to the overall ad mix?
But the real threat here, it seems, is to the flow and structure of the programming. One of the biggest factors that distinguishes a drama on ABC from one on HBO, say, is narrative structure. When you design a show around ad breaks, you have to build in mini-cliffhangers or moments of tension to keep your audience around through the commercials; if you have a straight 50-odd minutes to tell a story, you are freer to structure those minutes however suits your purposes best.
I’m not expecting the next Ken Burns, say, to end with a shocking revelation! every 15 minutes to keep you from tuning out, but if this becomes established practice, it necessarily means having public-TV producers tell stories more like commercial TV: at a different metabolism and with a less uninterrupted flow. [Update: In response to this post, a PBS spokesperson emails that the network will deal with each program case by case and will not require producers to design shows around breaks but will place them at "natural breaks" in the programs. That may be—this is all forward-looking, of course—but practically speaking I can't see how having such breaks won't lead to structuring programs to fit them, by fiat or by practice.]
And let’s be blunt: this was probably a tough call for PBS, but if they’re going to start adding commercials midprogram—which was once what they defined themselves as not doing—why are you giving them your money at pledge drives again? At what point do they become the pigs in Animal Farm, walking on two legs and dining at the table with the farmers they rebelled against?
PBS would have an answer to this, of course. They still make programming that commercial TV can’t or doesn’t sustain. Put as many car commercials in it as you want, CBS is never going to air Nova on a weeknight. And this can’t have been an easy decision for PBS, either philosophically or practically. (Responding to controversy, PBS president Paula Karger issued a memo yesterday promising to seek more input before implementing any change.)
I have to wonder if there aren’t better ways for PBS to deal with its money issues than this. (Even if the change is not about generating more revenue, it’s a recognition that there is so much “sponsorship” that it’s chasing viewers away.) Maybe it could attack executive overhead and redundancy and look at the overall structure of the organization, for instance. Maybe it could focus on developing programs that are more financially self-sustaining (as some kids’ programs like Sesame Street have been).
But the fact is that money’s tight and getting tighter. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting was threatened this spring, and Florida’s governor just vetoed PBS funding in his state. PBS’s best route to actual independence is through the pockets of its viewers. But with commercials in the middle of American Masters, do you still have a reason to give?
If there’s one saving grace for PBS in all this, it’s that for-profit TV is still distinguishing itself by finding ways to add revenue streams on top of its own commercials by adding product placements. Maybe PBS’s new argument can be that it keeps its advertising within advertising breaks, like God intended.
Although never say never! Would it kill Burns to ask players about the refreshing taste of Coke Zero when he makes his next Baseball sequel?