Public Stations, Private Money

Although it's an alien concept for much of the world, North America's two biggest public broadcasters depend on the money generated by corporate alliances to fill both their hours and their mandate. While their peers abroad claim that taking money from...
June 1, 1999

Although it’s an alien concept for much of the world, North America’s two biggest public broadcasters depend on the money generated by corporate alliances to fill both their hours and their mandate. While their peers abroad claim that taking money from private companies leads to compromise in the direction of the sponsoring corporation’s agendas, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in the U.S. claim they couldn’t live without it.


Less than a decade ago, the CBC formally organized its corporate sponsorship efforts into a single unit, mostly in response to the demands of an ad-hoc system that was becoming too cumbersome to maintain. As a public broadcaster partially funded by commercial revenues, the problem was that money from different sources was being generated by allocating the same on-air resources.

‘We actually got into the corporate sponsorship business about eight or nine years ago,’ explains senior director of national and sports sales, Adam Litzinger. ‘We realized that there were properties being produced by the CBC and [our] producers that needed the extra funding that they couldn’t get from [us]. They were going out to solicit advertisers and clients for production dollars, but that caused a lot of confusion in the sales department, because all of a sudden you had independent producers and CBC producers out there flogging their wares, [and at the same time] we were going out to clients and agencies getting just advertising media dollars.’

Although some broadcasters don’t, the CBC differentiates between straightforward media dollars (i.e. advertising – just paying for the right to say: `This episode is brought you by…’) and corporate dollars which are actually earmarked for production. Establishing a corporate sponsorship department prevented the two from overlapping, and now programs that have corporate sponsorship are not offered to media buyers. (After all, why would a company sponsor programming when a media buy was available at a fraction of the cost?)

According to Litzinger, the CBC sponsorship department goes right to the corporations when they begin trolling for dollars, usually bypassing the advertising or pr agencies who represent them. ‘Usually, these [corporations] have different budgets that help support those kind of projects. They might not come from the media dollars. They might come from a public relations budget, or a promotion budget. It could come from anywhere.

‘Agencies aren’t ready to support a premium property because everything in their eyes is strictly cost efficiency.’ Production dollars represent a long-term investment, the results of which are sometimes difficult to quantify.


The goal of the sponsorship department is to raise money for Canadian productions which would otherwise not be able to find funding, and therefore might never be attempted. Most genres fall under the department’s auspices: drama, sports, arts, documentaries, and even award shows.

Recently, The New Ice Age: A Year In the Life of the NHL, a 6 x 60-minute production from Toronto’s White Pine Films, was in a position to take advantage of the largess of the sponsorship department. A look at the business of hockey from the inside, the series needed between CDN$500,000 and $1 million in extra production dollars to fly. The project was turned over to the corporate sponsorship department, who searched for private money to underwrite the effort. A major sponsor was found in the form of Ford. The car manufacturer is also a major sponsor of Hockey Night In Canada, the weekly CBC hockey slot.

Although it’s rare for a single sponsor to underwrite an entire project, it does happen. Typically, however, the CBC will go after a few corporations for funding. In return for their investment, the companies are offered a package which usually consists of four or five 30-second spots during the broadcast (which the CBC will produce), as well as billboards at the top and bottom of the broadcast. The company logo and identity will also be tied to any promotion the CBC does for the show (including any signage), and depending on opportunity, the deal may even include tickets to an event, a hospitality screening or a reception.


PBS is similarly tied to private money for many of its productions. In order to build on the money they receive from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), most PBS stations have traditionally turned to foundations and private corporations to make up any shortfalls. The good news for public TV is that many U.S. foundations are flush with cash, thanks to unforecast and massive returns from investments made in a booming U.S. stock market (for a good overview on the situation, check the March 22 issue of Newsweek), but corporations still play a critical role in the funding formula.

Audrey Koota, executive director for marketing at New York-based Thirteen/WNET, explains how she approaches the process: ‘We in New York always look to a variety of funders put together for our funding strategy. We very rarely have the luxury of going to one funder to underwrite an entire series. For the most part, we put together a funding strategy which says: We will hopefully get some money from PBS and CPB. We will hopefully get some money from either the Endowments, or the National Science Foundation – which has been a significant supporter of WNET projects. We will then look to foundations, and then we will look for corporations. It can be one corporation or three….We have a variety of scenarios, but we will always try to piece together our funding from a variety of sources.’

For their part, corporate sponsors have always understood that they have a role in public television, but they are getting more savvy about the opportunities offered to them by their participation. No longer just an effort to look ‘highbrow’ or ‘green,’ investment in public productions is looked upon as making real and measurable headway with consumers.

‘I know there has been a change in corporate philosophy,’ explains Margaret Drain, executive producer of WGBH’s American Experience strand. ‘It used to be that corporations would see public television as a philanthropic buy-in, but that changed about eight years ago. Now they see it more as a media buy. They look at numbers very carefully – demographics, and what they call psychographics. They compare costs per thousands….They want to know who we’re reaching, how many times we’re reaching them and how frequently their message is being received. All those sorts of questions you ask when they’re doing a media buy….Much more of the business has entered the decision-making.’

Beyond the association with what is perceived as quality programming, companies also understand the access that the association can bring. Says Koota: ‘They will look at this and say: `How does this fill our corporate communications and business needs? Does this fit into our media plan? Does this makes sense?’ If it does, they will pursue it further and talk to us, not only about how do they get credit on-air around this project, but what are the off-air opportunities? Is there some outreach into the schools? Because these corporations today care about the schools.’ With more and more of PBS’ efforts moving towards interactive television, on-line, publishing and in-the-classroom efforts, the potential reach of corporate investment has grown exponentially.

That’s a fact not lost on WNET or Koota. ‘Each [investing] entity has its own specific needs and reasons, and we in marketing have to be creative about how we reach them and make sure that these are smart decisions for them.’ As opportunities to reach viewers and potential viewers increase, that decision will become increasingly more simple to make.


The obvious concern when a public producer takes money from the private sector is the amount of input they will have into the final product. As the policy at the BBC or ABC in Australia suggests (see Sidebars), no public broadcaster wants to undermine their credibility by seeming to be cowed by the need for corporate dollars.

In the case of PBS, the broadcaster’s policy forbids sponsorship of any project in which the corporation would have a vested interest in the editorial topics being covered. But beyond even that, the size of PBS is also a factor in keeping its editorial integrity, claims Drain.

‘We’re big enough to keep those checks and balances in place. It’s akin to the New York Times. It’s easier for the Times to keep that firewall between them and their advertisers than it is for a small local newspaper, because they’re big and powerful. The pressure is always more intense the smaller you are. We are pretty well-protected, and I’ve worked in networks also, so that’s my comparison.’

The fact that the funding package is built from so many different sources prevents any single entity from having too much pull in the production process. This is a revelation producers are beginning to come to generally, even those working with the large cablecasters, or with powerful coproduction partners. The more people who are brought to the table with money, the lesser the influence of any one party.

As far as the American Experience is concerned, Drain says she has no complaints with either Liberty Mutual or Sterns Miracle Grow, who currently underwrite the strand. ‘Both have been good corporate underwriters…in that I hardly ever hear from them.’


While it’s a difficult thing to ask for money and then demand autonomy, it’s a fact of life for North American pubcasters. According to Drain: ‘It wouldn’t be possible for us as a series to produce the number of programs we go on the air with every season without corporate underwriting. We have a base amount of money we get from PBS, which is generous, but it doesn’t cover the cost of a season of 15 or 16 hours of programs. We have to get corporate sponsorship interested. In addition to that we also have to get foundation grants to fund the programs – and we go everywhere. We’re sort of like movie producers in that way – we’ll put the funding together.’

Debate may rage over the credibility of corporate interaction, but for both North American pubcasters, it’s a process forced by fiscal realities.



For the most part, the BBC represents a dead-end for corporations looking to get some air time by dumping dollars into programming.

In the BBC’s Corporate Guidelines on Advertising and Sponsorship, under the Funding for programs section:

‘The guiding principle in funding our services and programs is that our audiences around the world should never have any reason to think that the BBC’s independence has been compromised for commercial reasons. The license fee will remain our main source of income and it must not be put at risk.’

And later: ‘We are prohibited from accepting sponsorship of our broadcast output. We should not accept any funds, facilities or services from a third party (excluding appropriate coproduction partners) in return for any on-air credit. Additionally, we should not accept sponsorship for commercial products or services that are directly linked to broadcast programs (e.g. sponsorship of audio or video cassettes).’

While some might question the BBC/Discovery Joint Venture given those conditions, the bbc sees the JV as a coproduction agreement, which is allowed.

The BBC can also occasionally produce co-funded programs with organizations who will not receive any rights or on-air promotion. According to their outline: ‘This is usually only in association with publicly funded or charitable organizations in the educational field, and where there is no danger that the editorial independence of the bbc will be questioned.’


Sometimes funding formulas begin to look like proofs for Quantum Physics. A good example is the new Ric Burns project, New York: A Documentary Film. The series is 5 x 2-hours domestically, but will be reversioned as 5 x 60-minutes for the international market. It will begin to air on pbs stations November 14, and will run over five consecutive week nights, as pbs has found that audiences erode less from day-to-day than from week-to-week.

The series, explains Tom Koch, director of WGBH International (which is handling sales of the series abroad), spent considerable time in development hell. ‘The project began many years ago. This has been Ric Burns’ passion for years and years.

‘He started a project with us, but it didn’t make complete sense for Boston to be the lead station on a project about the history of New York City. We joined forces with New York (WNET) to produce the show. There are a lot of reasons that made it sensible to do it that way. One is that we have really been doing the historical development. We have a relationship with Ric, that’s how it came to us. Number two, obviously having ‘net as a partner makes complete sense because [the project is] about New York. They have contacts there that we don’t have. They have resources there that we can’t provide from Boston.’

When the series is finally wrapped and is seen by audiences, it will be prefaced by a long list of credits: A Steeplechase Films production, a special presentation of The American Experience, in association with WGBH, WNET and the New York Historical Society. (As an aside, while The American Experience is now a WGBH production, for its first four years the series was a production partnership with WNET.) That list of credits, however does not even begin to touch upon the number of funders which have been involved in the production.

The ballpark US$7.5 million required to fund the series has been built through a large partnership. Roughly, the numbers break down into:

Corporate Funders 25%

The American Experience 15%

CPB 15%

National Endowment for the Humanities 15%

Foreign sales 15%

PBS money 15%


As executive producer of The American Experience Margaret Drain saw the need for a big infusion of cash for the project when she heard about it about five years ago. The American Experience had never attempted anything this large before.

The money began to come together over the course of several years. WGBH first went to the NEH, and then to PBS and the CPPB. After plumbing those sources, they next went to WNET, as Koch explains above, the obvious partner for the series.

For their part, WNET was able to interest the Chase Manhattan Bank, as well as the Ford Foundation, Arthur Vining Davis (a Florida foundation for the betterment of education, theology, health care and public television), the Marco Foundation (for money expressly tagged for a website designed for kids K-12), as well as individuals who were willing to act as sponsors, including members of the New York real estate and business community.

These sponsors and foundations are in addition to the two corporations normally associated with The American Experience. Liberty Mutual, a Boston-based diversified investment company, has been signed on as a sponsor for the series for a three-year term. Fertilizer manufacturer, Sterns Miracle Grow, are committed for at least two years.

In their agreement, wnet is responsible for the promotion of the series and WGBH International will carry the global sales. So far, the Boston entity has sold the series to Bayrischer Rundfunk/Telepool in Germany, Channel 4 in the U.K., Finland’s MTV 3 and the ABC in Australia.

Obviously, putting together a package as complicated as that is a complicated feat, but Koch sees it as a necessity in order to be able to produce the kind of programming his station takes on. ‘This is the kind of thing that would only happen on public television, and could only happen on public television. And that’s why we exist.’


In a survey commissioned by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in the late ’90s (and carried out by SRI International, a California-based research consultancy firm), the general public was asked their opinions about what is termed ‘enhanced’ sponsorship – what amounts to 30-second corporate commercials at the top of sponsored programs.

Among the things discovered in the survey:

86% of those polled thought enhanced sponsorship was understandable, given reduced government support

57% thought the enhanced presence would be alright if it stopped membership drives

59%, however, didn’t want to see things that look and sound like commercials

44% thought it was unfair to the tax-paying commercial stations to have to compete under such circumstances

41% thought corporate sponsorship gave companies too much influence on the content of programs

The same survey found that 74% of the general public would agree that enhanced sponsorship announcements that look and feel like ads were appropriate as fundraising tools, if such tools had to be employed.

In a more recent survey of member stations conducted by the PBS Board, those polled were divided in a 50-50 split over whether stations have the right to air 30-second underwriting credits.

THE ABC’S OF SPONSORSHIP: Few opportunities Corporations looking to get involved with in Australia

Australia’s national pubcaster will find most doors closed to them. Down Under, public and private just don’t mix.

Under section 14.2.2 of ABC’s broadcast guidelines concerning Commercial Organizations, Products and Services, it states:

‘As a general editorial policy, publicity for individuals, organizations or products should not be given, and the presentation of identifiable or clearly labeled brand products or services should be avoided….’

And in Section 14.2.3:

‘Product placement is not acceptable. It may well amount to the broadcast of an advertisement, and as such breach Section 31 of the ABC Act….’

Even producers working with the ABC need to be aware of the corporate presence in their projects. Under Section 14.4.2:

‘Where the logo of a coproduction partner appears in the credits, it must be no larger or more prominent than the ABC logo. The logo of a coproduction partner or independent producer may appear in the credits in a static, silent form only.’

One of the few ways that corporate sponsors can make it on air on the abc is through involvement with live performances. The abc will allow sponsorship of the public performance of an ABC-affiliated orchestra to be acknowledged in their credits, but it must be made clear that the sponsorship relates only to the performance, and not the broadcast.

THE FINAL WORD (SORT OF…): ARD, ZDF and sponsorship

ARD and ZDF, Germany’s public broadcasters, are bound by extremely strict regulations, but sponsorship is one way they can get around limitations on advertising (20 minutes in total before 8:00 p.m., and none after that).

Sponsorship on ARD is handled by Bavaria’s Bayerischer Rundfunk (BR) head of advertising and sponsorship Dr. Helmut Schwaabe. As things currently stand, among the categories that may not be sponsored are news, political/current affairs, religion, children’s, advisory and culture. (ZDF, on the other hand, does permit culture to be sponsored.) That leaves sports, films and entertainment. Documentaries are often excluded by falling into one or more of the above, but are not excluded as a category, per se.

Says BR’s Joachim Steinbach, deputy head of advertising and sponsorship: ‘Then there are the individual ARD channels’ own restrictions and the third tier of public stations that look after sponsorship on a regional basis.’

At Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR), says Andrea Menzel, ‘we allow the sponsorship of animal programming,’ as does ZDF.

Sponsorship mostly appears as a 6-second head and tail to movies, and the money goes to the broadcaster, not the producer.

Could an independent producer find their own sponsors? ‘That would be super! Super!,’ says Christian Lehmann-Feddersen of Hamburg-based IGEL Media, who cites the example of Heinekin’s sponsorship of the coproduced (with Holland’s European Media Support) series Water. (Good beer needs good water, you see.) It’s notable however, that the sponsoring company was not German, but Dutch.

In Germany, sponsors cannot show themselves or their products in the film, cannot be related to the content and, while they can have a credit on the end-titles and show a logo, slogans are verboten.

Steinbach has ‘to talk to the lawyers if a film is pre-sponsored, and I can’t remember a case.’ Dr. Kristina Hollstein, ZDF’s director of documentary coproductions says, ‘It’s really difficult if a producer brings his own head and tails. Only ZDF can decide who sponsors, not the producer.’

Bad news, too, if you’ve raised money via product placement. ‘We don’t allow that at all, ‘ says Hollstein. ‘Using company archives is ok, but not if the end result is a film that is promotional.’

Remember the sentence: ‘As things currently stand?’ In the autumn, Germany’s state premiers will meet to thrash out a new State Broadcasting Law. The growth in advertising revenues in Germany is slowing, the commercial broadcasters are out for blood and saying that ARD and ZDF are increasingly treading on their turf, and the public broadcasters want to secure their funding. Preferably, they’d like to see it increase.

‘At worst, we could even see an end to sponsorship on ARD,’ says Bayerischer Rundfunk’s Dr. Schwaabe, ‘Or maybe things’ll just stay the way they are. Who knows?’ Simon Kingsley in Germany

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.