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Hey, PBS: Want Viewers to Stay Tuned? Interrupting Programs with Promo Breaks Isn't the Answer... But I Have One
June 3, 2011  | By David Bianculli  | 1 comment
News surfaced this week that PBS plans, starting this fall, to insert promotional messages and corporate and foundation sponsor spots within a few core programs, rather than just between shows. Executives defend it as a way to keep viewers from defecting during the long bunched-up breaks at the end of each hour -- but this strategy carries its own risks. Besides, there's an easier way to reduce viewer turnout...

bear-under-sun-in-katmai-an.jpgThe PBS interruptus policy, initially, will be introduced only during the WGBH-produced series Nova and Nature. So it's not as though we'll break for a corporate message just as someone dies in his guest bed on Upstairs, Downstairs -- at least not yet. But as slippery slopes go, this one is greased lightning. Open the floodgates, and it's not difficult to predict what will follow.

To be honest, I'm less upset about this than I would be if Turner Classic Movies adopted the same policy, because watching movies uninterrupted there is that network's supreme service -- and supreme joy. But PBS, over the years, has diluted its own standard of excellence to the point where complaining about breaks in its programming seems less pertinent than complaining about the programming.

I trace the slide of PBS to the cancellation, many years ago, of American Playhouse, a program that was so visionary, so inspired and inspirational, so varied and so bold, that it embodied everything public television was created to provide. Its demise was due more to timidity and conservativeness from local member stations, most of them southern and rural, than any other reason.

As it turned out, American Playhouse turned out to be the canary in the PBS coal mine. Frontline, American Masters and American Experience all deserve credit for maintaining the once-high standards of public television, and even Great Performances and the former Masterpiece Theatre, under its many umbrella titles, occasionally still manage to deliver something great, or a true masterpiece.

But would any of those shows get funded and scheduled if offered to PBS stations today? What's the last great addition to public television, in any daypart? Go ahead. I'm waiting.

John F. Wilson, chief programmer for PBS, was quoted by Elizabeth Jensen in The New York Times as saying that the interrupting-programs ploy was necessary, because otherwise, during the lengthy promo and corporate message blocks between shows, "It's almost as if someone pulled the fire alarm and they scrambled for the exits."

You know how to keep people from scrambling for the exits between programs, Mr. Wilson? It's easy. So easy, in fact, it can be whittled down to three little words:

Make better shows.




Rich said:

The sad problem here is that PBS can't attract the younger set due its programming and yet they are the idealized station to try some experimental documentary & Reality programs that have made History, Discovery, TLC, A&E, and SyFy household names. Why?? cause this they are tied to: Culture, Art, News, and Masterpiece Theater.

I can count how many times I watch PBS in the last 10-15 years. The "Civil War", "Les Miz: in concert", "Coupling" and ... that's it. I actually watch more NHK world news channel than PBS in the last 3 months.

I get the impression the PBS takes my tax dollars and only shows the stuff THEY want to see or people who "agree with them" in terms of culture & content. Hence throw PBS into the "Free Market" to stay on the air and watch those shows IMPROVE!

That or set aside blocks of the day for various Demos cause I've never felt wanted or needed by PBS - they already get my tax money, who cares what I want to see, right?


Comment posted on June 3, 2011 5:05 PM

Davey said:

I don't think programming is the issue, except that it's probably driven down audience numbers. But commercial-free tv is PBS's major difference from commercial tv. That standard eroded long ago with the ads (oops, "promos" or whatever pathetic euphemism they're using these days) between programs and within some local programs.

This is a matter of trust. If PBS is getting its money from ads, why should viewers send them money? If they are just another ad-peddling vehicle, why should anybody feel any sense of loyalty to them? This is an incredibly stupid decision that will put the final nail in public tv's coffin. Unfortunately typical of the timid, imagination-free management that took over the enterprise some years ago. Much of the time they can't even manage to get a description of their shows into the tv listings online or on set top boxes, so how are they going to attract viewers?

Public tv is too important to let it fade away in the hands of bad management. PBS has needed a deep housecleaning for a long time. Unfortunately in this era of Peak Stupid, any reform will be used as an excuse to kill off the whole thing for once and for all. It's pathetic that the US, alone among the developed countries, is incapable of supporting vigorous, brilliant, and independent public tv.

Comment posted on June 3, 2011 7:15 PM

Mac said:

Breaks. Public radio uses them... :19 after and :39 after the hour. Some breakaways are used for traffic/weather, some short info insets exist but many (the local one here) uses them for corporate messages.They aren't organic (the Car Guys refer to the second break with the "third half"of the show follows) since automated systems can only follow automated orders. Radio is a different animal than TV (traffic during rush hour is an important piece of info), but one wishes that TV would not stoop to this. The rationale is lousy; not only better shows keep eyeballs there, but nature calls in an unautomated way. Just let it alone is the wise decision and, of course, it won't be heeded. But let them know with your wallet. Rather than a computer donation, make the pledge over the phone but pull back a few bucks in ransom. Still pledge, but make it harder for them and make sure to tell them why you are doing it. It might mean more Daniel O'Donnell, Suze Orman and dead Doo-Wop airings (ugh!), but maybe someone will realize how distasteful this is.

Comment posted on June 4, 2011 10:20 AM

bob said:

Completely agree with David and Davey. And Rich, compare anything on History, A&E, and Discovery with American Experience and Nova. See a difference?

Comment posted on June 4, 2011 11:08 PM

Davey said:

Rich, you're being misleading about the tax dollars. They get barely anything from the government. More than half of their funding comes from contributions and the rest from corporate and nonprofit "acknowledgements" (ie, ads). Repeating the "government subsidy" myth only helps make thinss worse. If public broadcasting had a reliable source of funds they wouldn't have to troll for funding from corporations and from the lowest common denominator.

Personally, I think being dedicated to "Culture, Art, News, and Masterpiece Theater" is a good thing. The problem is that for the most part they do it poorly. The US is alone among the developed countries in being incapable of supporting independent news and cultural public broadcasting. We should be ashamed of ourselves.

I don't know what you mean by throwing them "into the free market", but their reason for existing is precisely because the "free market" is such unremitting crap. Of course they could get ratings by running "reality" shows about mostly-naked mud wrestling, but that's exactly what they're supposed to be the alternative to. The problem isn't their mission. Culture, art, and news doesn't mean being stuck in the last century. They need all new management that gets that.

PS to David -- Can you not get a decent "type the characters" thing on this site if you have to have one at all? I hate the one you use even more than I hate the Real Housewives. Going for the 3rd try now....

[Made me laugh. Yes, that's one of the next things we're changing. Sorry. It's always best, for now, to define and save your comment BEFORE you send it, just in case it gets eaten in the ether. Then you just replace and resend. But the real fix, which is to replace it, we're working on. We feel your pain. -- DB]

Comment posted on June 5, 2011 12:20 PM

ssw15 said:

Just to put in my two cents: when I heard the news of commercials _during_ PBS programming, I couldn't help but be frustrated as a PBS supporter.

I guess we should see have seen it coming, but it's irritating to see more commercial promotions between programs on PBS and more pointless pledge programming. Having commercials dilutes the point of PBS. And, I'm turned off by Suze Orman and other pledge programming - I understand that they have some degree of usefulness and how they might help in the donations and getting new members, but they're not a true regular part of PBS programming and new members who got into PBS because of those shows are kidding themselves if they think that's what PBS is about.

I've done my best to contribute as a PBS member, but when I see that even Masterpiece Theatre (under its various umbrellas) does a little odd editing of the episodes from Britain (like with some Inspector Lewis or even Sherlock episodes, leaving me befuddled by odd plot holes), all the irritations start piling up.

I agree with Davey above - PBS is distinguishable for the lack of real commercials - having shows like Nova, American Experiences (the documentary on the Freedom Riders was amazing), and Great Performances (nowhere else on television can we get Audra McDonald's singing!), and the Newshour (civil panel discussions and in-depth reporting!).

Plus, isn't it about making these kinds of shows accessible even to those who don't have cable? It is kind of scary to think about the haves vs. the have-nots, but I think it's not something to forget and I thought PBS did a fine job in trying to make up for what the broadcast and cable networks don't approach or consider. I suppose in an age where the public interest isn't every desirable (from what I could tell of the anti-civil service hysteria of earlier this spring anyway), I appreciate that PBS does aim for a public good.

I do want to help PBS, but not at the cost of losing important and quality programming; guess I ought to do a better job of getting my opinion to PBS, not just put my money's worth out there (probably what we all should try to do).

Comment posted on June 7, 2011 1:32 AM

Stephen - NYC said:

I stopped donating once they decided to plaster their logo on the screen (I'm yelling at you Thirteen). If you want to act like commercial tv with onscreen stuff, then so will I. Logos and whatnot edit the program.

As to ads in the middle of a show, well, that's the end of them. Make better shows is a grand concept, but I think the grocery shrink ray has hit pbs shows as well as the broadcast & cable channels. Think about it: 20 minutes of ads and promos in a 60-minute show, when back before 1978, the commercials were, what, maybe 8 or 10 minutes tops. And half that for a 30-minute show (I have my M*A*S*H tapes and it's great to watch an early episode and be blown away by the amount of content - same for the quality).
So, instead of giving us 10 minutes before the next show, give us only 2 or 3 and we'll stick around. And since there would be fewer promos & ads & thank-you's, those companies can pay more for the privilege of being one of the few and not one of the many. I'd even watch the ads on CBS, et al if they would increase content to a 25/50 minute level. I am not against ads, just the idea that any given time-block has room for one more ad. What do they think they are? A NYC subway car?

Comment posted on June 14, 2011 8:00 PM
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Within the last 30 years, PBS has become a bastion of liberal suckdumb. Add the commercials with which they've further stunk up the programming, and you've got garbage not worth watching, much less contributing to.
Feb 6, 2018   |  Reply
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