When my membership renewal came due I sent WGBH a letter explaining the dilemma I faced deciding whether to continue to support Boston’s non-commercial public television station. I had recently seen a promotional piece- a non-commercial commercial- produced by Walmart. I felt stunned, incredulous, betrayed.
I have taken the liberty of posting the return letter I received from a WGBH staff member whose name I have withheld from publication here. I assume the issues the letter addresses are of concern to many SV readers who are supporters of public media (however mainstream). Although I am not easily mollified, I do appreciate the length and substance of the letter. Its tone is respectful, neither dismissive nor patronizing. I am interested in others’ thoughts about the issues discussed.
“Dear Julie A. Katz,
Thank you for contacting WGBH and for your support… Thank you for writing to us with your concerns about Wal-Mart’s support of public media programming. We understand how much you value the programs you watch on WGBH, and we are grateful that you took the time to contact us. Wal-Mart is not a local underwriter of our programs, but they have been national sponsors of NPR, and they are currently an underwriter of TAVIS SMILEY, a PBS program that we broadcast on WGBH.
As you may know, public broadcasting must work hard to find financial support for its programs — programs that are only made possible through a unique relationship of diverse funding sources, which can include individuals, foundations, corporations, and the government. In terms of corporate sponsorship, beyond a few obvious categories (such as tobacco, distilled spirits, firearms), we believe disagreements with an organization’s policies, or a company’s products or practices, are more appropriately and effectively dealt with through public, regulatory, or judicial processes than through public media’s refusal to accept a company’s money that helps fund a program or series. We understand and appreciate that there are diverse opinions and experiences with any company, and if we were to decline all funding where the company has a product issue of some sort, we would have far less funding and fewer programs to offer you and your neighbors.
Companies that do choose to provide funding must accept the strict limitations placed by the FCC, PBS, and NPR on what they can and can’t say in their credit — far less than what they can say on commercial television. PBS sponsorship credits may not, for example, include comparisons with other companies or products, offer cost information or include a “call to action,” inviting the viewer to buy a product. The guidelines for PBS’s children’s programs are even stricter, prohibiting the display of any products that may place inappropriate commercial pressure on these special viewers. In addition, PBS rules require the sponsor’s message to be one of support for public television, learning, or education.
As a content producer, we can share with you that there is a strict firewall between the fundraising process, funders, and the editorial divisions within all of the programs WGBH produces for PBS. We are deeply committed to the highest level of editorial integrity and adhere to the most rigorous journalistic standards. To maintain that integrity and the trust of our audiences, funders—whether corporations, foundations, or individuals—are prohibited from any involvement in the editorial process. We believe that our long standing track record for producing landmark, award-winning documentaries on FRONTLINE, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, and NOVA gives viewers the assurance that our journalism cannot be bought. And that’s one reason why, according to the non-partisan Harris Poll, for the ninth consecutive year the American people have named PBS the nation’s most trusted and unbiased organization, as well as the most trusted source for news and public affairs among broadcast and cable sources. And WGBH is proud to have our productions at the heart of PBS’s national schedule, shared with public television viewers all across the country.
I hope this provides further insight that you may find helpful as you assess the role of corporate funders in PBS and NPR programs.
Submitted by Julie A. Katz