An underwriting commercial is a public broadcasting statement made in return for money. These spots usually mention the sponsor's name and, to a limited extent, resemble traditional television advertisements in commercial broadcasting; however, under the terms of a public broadcaster's Federal Communications Commission license, such spots are prohibited from being promotional or making any sort of "call to action."
What is it?
Corporations, small companies, philanthropic groups, charity trusts, and individuals can all donate funds. An underwriting ad would generally feature the underwriter's name, maybe a corporate slogan, and a word of appreciation, either from the sponsor expressing pleasure in the program or from the station expressing gratitude for the underwriter's funding. Individual spots, which are more common on public radio, are frequently used to express personal appreciation for the station's programming, as well as to wish family members or friends well on a big life event such as a wedding, anniversary, or birthday.
Criticisms include restricting impacts on public affairs programs that include investigative journalism, as well as a tendency to pick programming based on non-artistic criteria, such as symphony broadcasts on radio and theatrical plays on television.
The PBS policy
In the PBS Redbook, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) specifies its "Program Underwriting Policy," which includes the following provisions:
- Underwriters are outside parties that voluntarily donate funds to help a PBS station finance the production or acquisition of a program. Investment or licensing partners, as well as distribution organizations supplying funds for other objectives, are not considered underwriters.
- The "underwriting credit pod" is a block of time that contains underwriter credits; it cannot be more than 60 seconds, with no more than 15 seconds assigned to each underwriter. If more than one underwriter is referenced, they must all be recognized.
- Credit pods for underwriting must "match the show's production values and flow well with program content and other package components."
- Underwriting credit pods must appear at the conclusion of the program but may also appear at the start. Underwriting credits must be included in both locations in news and current affairs programs, as well as in all PBS programming since 2009.
- The end underwriting pod can be before or after the show's production credits; if an underwriting pod is included at the beginning, it must begin within the first three minutes of the program and should be placed after the program's opener or tease.
- When PBS contributes to the production, the underwriting credit pod must end with "...from Viewers Like You. Thank you"; when funding is received from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), they are credited with a voiceover and a "visual treatment" consisting of the CPB logo, the tag line "a private corporation funded by the American people," and the CPB's website; similarly, when "Viewers..."
Diving in Deep
When linked by the exchange of anything of value such as cash, commodities, or services, sponsorship underwriting and advertising are essentially the same thing. The underwriter is sent a series of informative messages about their company, which are broadcast in exchange for a monetary payment. Individuals, foundations, and non-profit donors may fund programs without the requirement for a contract for financing informational advertising. PBS and CPB guidelines allow broadcast stations to underwrite commercial usage with specific speech limitations that are only needed of broadcast stations due to the nature of the non-profit license.
Channels that carry non-commercial formats on cable television or direct broadcast satellite television often do not utilize advertising commercials since they can support operations with subscriber fees. Classic Arts Showcase is an exception since it is financed by a foundation created by its originator, Lloyd Rigler, and consequently recognizes that foundation on-air. Because these channels are not aired over the air, they are immune from the language limitations on cable station underwriting ads, if they want to utilize them.