IIC. Commercialism Test

Public television, comprised of free and independent noncommercial broadcasters, licensed as such by the FCC and expected to be noncommercial by the public, must vigorously protect its noncommercial character.

One of public television's obligations to the FCC, the Congress and the public is to respect and maintain its noncommercial character. Public television's nonprofit, noncommercial status contributes to its journalistic independence. Moreover, because of its noncommercial, nonprofit status, public television receives special treatment from the FCC and various taxing authorities, and it receives direct funding from federal, state and local governments. Public television is also eligible for special tariff provisions from common carriers, it receives special rates from unions and performers, and it has special privileges for the use of copyrighted materials. Most important, public television, because of the character, quality and integrity of its program service, has received a special place in the public's mind. Therefore, in addition to the editorial principles already set forth, a commercialism test will also be applied to determine whether certain proposed program funding arrangements are acceptable to PBS.

In applying this test, PBS will carefully analyze the relationship of the funder and its business interests to the subject matter of the program. Earlier versions of these guidelines provided that when a clear and direct commercial connection existed between the interests, products or services of a corporation and the subject of a program, the proposed funding arrangement would be deemed unacceptable. In more recent years, however, the application of this principle has been limited to only those proposed funding arrangements that are blatantly commercial or self-congratulatory.

The interest to be protected here is both the fact and the public perception that public television's selection of programs and the content of those programs is responsive solely to the perceived needs of the public which it serves -- not to the commercial interests of corporations or other entities who may fund public television programs. The concern is less that the connection might bring about actual funder control of the program content, although this danger may indeed be present. Instead, the concern is the damage to public television's reputation that could result from a funding arrangement that is so self-serving or self-congratulatory that a reasonable public could conclude that the program is on public television solely or principally because it promotes the funder's products, services or other business interests.

Thus, the policy is intended to prohibit any funding arrangement where the primary emphasis of the program is on products or services that are identical or similar to those of the underwriter. If, however, the product or service depicted is merely incidental or of secondary importance to the program, the funding would be allowed.

The following examples illustrate how the commercialism principle is applied:

  • A manufacturer of photography equipment would be permitted to underwrite a general how-to series on photography composition and film developing, but could not fund a program which prominently featured the company's products or which compared products or services similar to those offered by the underwriter.

  • A pharmaceutical company could fund a 13-part series examining the working and functions of the human body. The commercial tie between the funder's products and interests and the subject matter of the series is too attenuated to prohibit this funding arrangement, since the series deals with the human anatomy, not health care.

  • An oil-producing company could fund a program concerning an art exhibit it has sponsored, provided that the company has not exercised control over the exhibit itself.

  • A company could underwrite a program focusing on the life and career of a famous architect who designed the building which houses that company, even though the program might include a brief or coincidental reference to the architect's connection to the funder's building. This situation would not be acceptable, however, if the program focused entirely or primarily on the building in question.

Finally, producers are cautioned to scrupulously avoid "product placement" arrangements, i.e., the deliberate or gratuitous appearance in the program of an underwriter's product or service in a way that draws attention to or features that product or service in any way whatsoever. Producers need not substitute a competitor's products for those of an underwriter, but must use care to ensure that any appearance of an underwriter's product is purely incidental and could not be misconstrued as a product placement.