Why it's a good idea to underwrite PBS - the companies' view
Why do major corporations decide to underwrite programs on Public Broadcasting Service? In conversations over the past 10 years with many representatives of corporate funders, self-interest has never been given as the main reason. Instead, the first rationale is always public service - the fact that PBS offers viewers high-level alternative broadcasting which the corporation in question believes needs to be made available to the great American public.Skip to next paragraph
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Only after that objective is stated will anybody admit that there are also many image-building advantages to underwriting PBS programming. And these are undoubtedly valid, too.
When a company is having image problems - strikes, lawsuits, trouble with regulatory agencies - that is often the time when somehow the public-service aim is made more concrete with actual funds forthcoming. Sometimes a company will be in the process of changing its name, or acquiring other companies which complicate its identity. Sometimes a company will be changing its product or its direction and wishes to establish its new identity.
In such instances, PBS is a comparatively inexpensive way to reach an audience - almost subliminally.
I talked to several current PBS underwriters and asked them two basic questions: What do American TV audiences gain from your funding? And what does your company gain? Here are some of the answers:
* For AT&T, underwriter of ''The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour'' (Mary Delle Stelzer, division manager of corporate underwriting): ''The American public - including our customers, shareowners, employees, and future employees - care very much about what's happening in the world. 'The MacNeil/Lehrer Report' was the best news analysis program on TV, so we underwrote it. When the idea for a full hour came up, we felt the same quality in a full hour was something we should bring to the American people.
''We think the PBS audience is a key audience of people who are concerned, willing to take action in their local communities. The kind of people important to us. By underwriting, we get the opportunity every evening to equate top-quality news with a top-quality company. That helps us in terms of our corporate image. The old Bell System was clearly seen as a quality company. Our underwriting the show extends and enhances that reputation and makes it clear that the new AT&T has that same commitment.''
Ms. Stelzer responds to criticism that the program provides AT&T with back-door access to news programming this way: ''If we could control MacNeil/Lehrer, the show wouldn't be of the quality we would want to be associated with.''
* For J. C. Penney, underwriter of ''In Performance at the White House'' and ''Working Women'' (Harvey McCormick, manager of public relations): ''Penney is in the midst of trying to broaden its appeal in terms of getting more contemporary men and women to shop in our stores. These people would also be interested in the type of programming to be found on PBS.''