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Brand Safety Concerns Escalate

PBS Remains a Safe Haven for Viewers and Sponsors

In these tumultuous political times with the immediate feedback loop of social media, the issue of brand safety, and how it impacts both advertisers and viewers, has become increasingly important when making decisions about media placement.

Just two days after Roseanne Barr’s racist tweets came the news that two advertisers – Autotrader and State Farm – pulled their schedules from TBS weekly late night political-themed talker “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.” Barr came under fire for making a racist comment about former Obama aide Valerie Jarrett, which resulted in Disney-ABC immediately canceling her top-rated sitcom, and Samantha Bee’s controversial remark about Ivanka Trump created a social media firestorm.

“No matter what ABC would have done, whether they chose to keep Roseanne on the air or not, there would have been public criticism,” said media analyst Bill Carroll. “This is the Disney brand, so they had to take a stance. And I imagine TBS might have considered canceling Samantha Bee’s show, had more advertisers pulled out.”

“In this social media environment where words or actions are immediate, advertisers don’t want to align themselves with anything controversial,” he added. “The audience could ultimately hold these brands responsible if they align with them.”

Advertiser concerns about what we see on TV, of course, are nothing new. Think 1972, when Bea Arthur’s character on Norman Lear sitcom Maude had an abortion. Or sitcom Soap in 1977, which featured an openly gay male character. Advertisers pulled their spots and some affiliate stations pre-empted the episodes. And just last year a slew of on-air news personalities, Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, Matt Lauer of NBC, and Charlie Rose on PBS and CBS, in particular, were fired after allegations of sexual harassment.

“The last thing any outlet wants is to alienate their advertisers, so they must act with urgency,”
noted Bill Carroll. “Social media is a watch-dog of sorts.”

But aside from the loudest voices on social media, how do viewers really feel about offensive content? Do they really hold media platforms, and their advertisers, accountable? What actions, if any, are they willing to take?


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New SGPTV/Lightspeed Research Study Reveals Viewer Reaction to Offensive Content

Sponsorship Group for Public Television (SGPTV), the national sales organization for PBS that represents PBS’s icon shows such as “Masterpiece,” “American Experience,” “NOVA,” “FRONTLINE” and “ANTIQUES ROADSHOW,” partnered with Lightspeed Research for a study that offers some fascinating insights into this issue, and other hot topics of the day. Just over 5,100 respondents representative of the U.S. TV audience participated, fielded against U.S. adults 18+ who had viewed PBS or one of 17 other networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, CNBC, CNN, Discovery, ESPN, Fox News, HGTV, History, Lifetime, MSNBC, National Geographic, TBS, TNT, USA).

“The primary goal of the survey was to understand how feelings about programming transfer to sponsors or advertisers of that programming,” noted Jay Hiselman, Director of Research for Corporate Sponsorship at SGPTV. “We know that PBS viewers appreciate the high-quality content, and we wanted to explore the connection they have with sponsors and compare that to the connection viewers have with advertisers on commercial television networks.”

“There has been a lot of talk about advertiser concern regarding brand safe environments, and for good reason,” he added. “Our results demonstrate that there is a widespread concern from viewers, too. Beyond sex and violence, drugs and alcohol, bad language and generally reckless behavior, the main concern from viewers is news media that is dishonest and/or biased. Racist commentary and/or offensive characterizations also topped the list.”


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A fascinating revelation from the study is the confirmation that viewers DO hold advertisers accountable for their support of both “bad” and “good” content and are willing to take action.

Among the findings:

· 63% of respondents agree that “a company that advertises on/sponsors objectionable content is responsible for making that content possible.”

· 49% of respondents say there is “at least one company they refuse to buy from because they financially support objectionable content via advertising.”

· 27% of respondents get active on social media when they become aware of advertisers/sponsors in objectionable media.

“Viewers have learned that their voice counts, and they are no longer passive about content they find objectionable, or favorable,” noted Suzanne Zellner, Vice President at SGPTV. “They speak out by their selection of the content they choose to consume. Or, they speak with their wallet, by supporting or rejecting advertisers or sponsors of content that they feel strongly about.”

Viewers Object to Too Much Commercial Clutter

“Another issue for viewers is that many networks have too many commercials that interrupt their viewing experience,” reported Hiselman.


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Among adults with young children (PBS Scores High on Both Brand-Safe Content and Lack of Commercial Clutter

Rated as the most trustworthy* institution among nationally known organizations for 15 consecutive years, PBS celebrates 50 years on the air in 2019 with its perennial mixture of quality and educational programming that families can watch together as a unit. At PBS, the mission is the same as it was on that first day in 1969: “Trust is the most important measure of our success in fulfilling our essential public service mission.”

“Entertaining, informative, educational and authentic are the words I would use to describe PBS,” noted Rob Russo, President and CEO of RNR Media Consulting. “It is what the Discovery Channel, the History Channel and A&E should be, packaged with a robust slate of scripted period dramas. It is real and enriching, and more upscale perhaps than a more traditional platform. For a sponsor, PBS is brand safe and less cluttered. What you see you are more likely to remember.”

The Lightspeed research confirms that PBS’s approach resonates with viewers. Hiselman adds, “Overall, 84% of PBS viewers agree with the statement: ‘I appreciate the clutter-free non-commercial environment while watching PBS programs.’” And viewers identify PBS as the source for family friendly, trusted content that respects their intelligence.”


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The “PBS Halo Effect”

Not only do viewers hold advertisers accountable for content that they find offensive, the inverse is also true: they bestow positive attributes on sponsors that support content that they like and prefer to do business with them.


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“Viewers come to PBS because they know the quality of the content they will find there,” noted Suzanne Zellner. “The viewer understands the relationship between corporate support of PBS programming and the ability of PBS to continue to produce this content: 86% of viewers surveyed said they are ‘aware that the corporations that sponsor PBS programs help make them possible.’ And brands choose PBS because they understand the power of that connection. We call it the ‘PBS halo effect.’ By simply aligning with PBS, viewers assign sponsor brands some very desirable attributes: quality, innovation, good corporate citizenship and most importantly, intent to purchase.”

One such sponsor, Consumer Cellular, cites the merits of ANTIQUES ROADSHOW and its upcoming alignment with American Experience. Brian Hepner, Vice President of Marketing for Consumer Cellular said in a statement: “PBS and ANTIQUES ROADSHOW are a terrific pair for Consumer Cellular. Many of our customers enjoy so much of the fine programming PBS has to offer, with ANTIQUES ROADSHOW an unwavering standout performer. We are excited to renew alignment of our brand and awareness efforts with this show and look forward to reaching even more PBS viewers with our new sponsorship of American Experience.”

As the various TV networks and digital publishers tout their attributes and (limited) commitment to lower commercial loads to media buyers, marketers and prospective advertisers during this upfront selling season, the strength of PBS is the consistent excellence of its content, and its unique, low-clutter sponsor environment. PBS is the pioneer of this uncluttered strategy.

More specifically, there is just one 60-second sponsor pod at the beginning and end of each episode. Sponsorships are offered in 15- or 30-second units, and sponsorships are category-exclusive – no sharing the pod, or the episode, with your competitors.


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“We’re glad that our media colleagues are finally recognizing what PBS has always known: advertisers don’t want to be buried in a pod of six to eight other messages, and they want to be connected to content,” noted Zellner. “Some networks are introducing lower commercial loads in select programming, likely to be priced at a premium. But PBS’s low-clutter pods are in place for every show across the schedule. For us, it’s business as usual. Every pod, every show, with uninterrupted content in between. No commercial network can match that viewer, or sponsor, experience.”

Coming Up on PBS

This October, American Experience will feature “The Circus,” the story of the rise and fall of the traveling, tented railroad circus. Other themed shows under the banner will include “Woodstock” and “Chasing the Moon,” an epic 6-hour exploration of the Apollo 11 moon landing. NOVA has space-themed stories ahead later this year and in 2019, including “Inside Apollo 8,” “Back to the Moon,” “Beyond Pluto,” and a five-part series “Planets,” which will explore the beauty of our solar system.

ANTIQUES ROADSHOW has shifted from indoor convention centers to the beautiful outdoor grounds of historic locations across the country (including historic Rosecliff Mansion in Newport, RI; John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, FL; Churchill Downs, Louisville, KY; Hotel del Coronado, Coronado, CA). PBS KIDS will introduce Let’s Go Luna!, which encourages kids to explore and appreciate diverse cultures from around the world; and Molly of Denali, an adventure-filled literacy series that honors Alaskan culture and values. Let’s Go Luna! premieres November 21, 2018; and Molly of Denali in July 2019.

“PBS for children is a beacon of light. Programming for them is improving lives and setting the foundation of their pending adulthood,” said Tim Winter, President of the Parents Television Council. “For adults, PBS is an oasis of sophisticated entertainment. It is truly a place that offers a sanctuary from the hyper noise of the world. It is smart with tremendously high production values. It tells stories that are entertaining without pandering. And, for a sponsor, it offers a safe and upscale haven that will never compromise their values.”

”Given the times, PBS is more valuable than ever before,” he added.

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For more information about PBS sponsorships, visit the Sponsorship Group for Public Television website SGPTV.org, call 800-886-9364, or contact Suzanne Zellner at [email protected].

*Marketing & Research Resources, Inc. (M&RR)

Written by Marc Berman

Marc Berman

Marc Berman has been writing professionally since 1999 and is the author of the “Mr. Television” for Campaign US (www.campaignlive.com). Most recently, Berman was the creator and Editor-in-Chief of website and newsletter TV Media Insights for Cross MediaWorks. From 1999-2011, he was the Senior Editor for Mediaweek and has also written for The New York Daily News, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter and Emmy Magazine, among others. Berman has also appeared on “Entertainment Tonight,” “Extra,” “Access Hollywood,” “Inside Edition,” “The CBS Evening News,” E!, CNN, CNBC, Fox News and MSNBC.

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