PBS has confirmed that it will start selling ads on its Web sites this fall. NPB Interactive, the online sales division for a number of public broadcasting stations, will rep the six "neighborhoods" of branded content for sites covering 1,800 shows and Web-only content including podcasts.
The move was telegraphed by new President Paula Kerger, who said in a speech to the Media Institute last spring that PBS would proceed with caution, and apply standards similar to those for its on-air underwriters--but that the Internet gave noncoms "the ability to experiment a little more on the advertising side than we do with broadcast."
She also conceded that on-air sponsor spots had gotten a lot more ad-like.
With PBS' funding constantly targeted for cuts or worse by congressional Republicans, the service is always looking for new sources of revenue. In fact, one of the reasons Kerger got the job was her chops as a fundraiser, both for her former station, WNET New York, and before that the Metropolitan Opera.
Calling it a "terrible idea," Center For Digital Democracy Executive Director Jeff Chester blasted the decision. Chester, who has been critical of public broadcasting on several fronts, attacked the move on his blog (http://www.democraticmedia.org/jcblog/?p=77), saying: "If PBS is to remain distinctive at all—it has to strictly adhere to non-commercial formats in all forms of distribution.... PBS officials think they have a loophole because they aren’t prohibited from running ads online (they are restricted in terms of commercials and their TV licenses). Congress must step in to bar PBS from running any ads—in any medium."
"Noncommercial does not mean non-revenue generating," said PBS spokesman Kevin Dando."PBS currently does have underwriting spots on-air, and we have explored this move into the online space very carefully and deliberately, and we plan to follow strict guidelines for the Web.
Dando says no banner ads will appear on individual kids program sites, though a half-banner will be sold on the PBSkids.org and the PBSKids Go! home pages and, says Dando, ""will be targeted at parents."
"Sponsorship messages within PBSKids.org will preserve the non-commercial look and feel of the site and will reflect the spirit of PBS’s broadcast guidelines for Kids," he says, "while taking into consideration the Internet sponsorship guidelines that were created for the PBS.org general audience site.
"Exclusions in the Kids space will mirror our broadcast guidelines, and all advertisers and messages will be carefully reviewed and approved by PBS before they appear on PBS.org and PBSKids.org."
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Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.