May 1 2000

The Commercialization of Children’s Public Television

PBS's ads sell toys, drugs and junk food to your kids

At the end of Sesame Street, the show traditionally announces that the episode has been brought to you by, say, “the letter Z and the number 2”–a daily reminder of the show’s commitment to non-commercial educational programming. But these days, the tradition has been co-opted for profit: Today after the show, you might hear an announcement that “Pfizer brings parents the letter Z–as in Zithromax.”

Zithromax is the antibiotic promoted by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer for treating ear infections and other ailments. “More information about Zithromax is just a click away,” the spot promises, accompanied by images of a zebra and children playing with a giant toy block.

As illustrated by the Pfizer spot, the 15-second announcements that bracket PBS kids’ shows are growing increasingly commercial. These “enhanced underwriter acknowledgments”–the FCC’s and PBS‘s euphemism for commercials–are public broadcasters’ solution to funding problems in the wake of reduced government support. But are they legal? Many underwriter advertisements seem to contradict communications law, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations and even PBS‘s own guidelines.

The Communications Act of 1934 flatly forbids non-commercial broadcasters from airing any kind of advertisements, defined as messages that “promote any service, facility or product” for profit. But the FCC, charged with interpreting and enforcing this law, found a loophole in this straightforward ban (Extra!, 9-10/93), giving an OK to donor acknowledgments that include brand names, location information and logos or slogans “which identify and do not promote.” The FCC allows “value neutral descriptions of a product line or service,” but emphasizes that “such announcements may not include qualitative or comparative language.”

While the idea that a for-profit company can “identify” its product without “promoting” it is dubious in itself, PBS‘s guidelines for underwriters (found on the PBS website) water down these weakened rules even further, turning prohibitions into suggestions:

If an announcement involves brands or products especially appealing to young viewers, the message should avoid depicting the products or using mascots and other elements that encourage children to ask for the products. Ideally, announcements should contain a value-neutral identification and a message of support for PBS, public television, or education.

“They’re great!”

Unfortunately, PBS chooses to air commercials that fall far short of this “ideal.” The Zithromax ad’s exotic animal and outsized toy, meant to evoke the product’s logo, also serve to make a prescription-only drug appealing to preschool viewers.

The Pfizer ad is followed by one for, a family-oriented Internet portal, which asks viewers if they’re “looking for something fun and educational,” and promises, “We help families discover the fascinating possibilities of the Internet.” “Fascinating possibilities” is value-neutral language?

Similarly, another Sesame Street underwriter credit featuring the shopping website calls on parents to “Click on your child’s potential,” touting the benefits of the product while actively urging parents to use it.

The widespread use of company slogans on public television inevitably crosses into commercial territory, in violation of both FCC rules and communications law. A spot for Arthur sponsor Juicy Juice identifies the product with the tag “100 percent juice for 100 percent kids.” An ad for Healthtex (Zoboomafoo) markets its “play-clothes for life’s little lessons.” Since phrases like “100 percent kids” and “life’s little lessons” have no objective meaning, they are promotional slogans, not value-neutral descriptions.

Some of the more insidious commercials on PBS masquerade as announcements in support of educational values, portraying corporate underwriters in a positive light as advocates of children’s welfare–what’s known as “image advertising.” This practice is illustrated by spots for Wishbone underwriters, who incorporate their well-known slogans into messages of support for education.

In one ad, “Chuck E. Cheese proudly supports PBS kids’ television, where a kid can be a kid.” Echoing the pizza chain’s unmistakable jingle, the effect is deliberately ambiguous: Is it PBS where a kid can be a kid, or Chuck E. Cheese?

In another Wishbone announcement, we hear from “Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, reminding you that thinking and creating are more than good, they’re great!” The familiar catchphrase calls to mind Frosted Flakes’ cartoon mascot Tony the Tiger–linking the sugary cereal to educational and creative play.

Some underwriters go even further, blatantly featuring their products as encouraging kids to learn. In a commercial for another Arthur sponsor, a child’s excited voice tells us about “Post Alpha-Bits Cereal: 26 little letters that make up a million words, that tell billions of stories–and it all starts with ABC.” It’s hard to miss the implication that Alpha-Bits must be a great way to get kids excited about reading.

This pseudo-educational theme can be seen in a McDonald’s ad that underwrites New York’s Channel 13 (WNET). An animated Ronald McDonald opens a book–and out flies a red Happy Meal box with familiar golden arches, transforming the bare surroundings into an animated wonderland. A voiceover tells viewers that McDonald’s is “happy” to support children’s television. This commercial blatantly uses the cartoon Ronald McDonald to create an animated visual link between McDonald’s Happy Meals and fun.

Good thing PBS‘s guideline against underwriters using products and mascots to appeal to children is only a suggestion.

Kimberly Pohlman is a former FAIR intern who lives in Olympia, Washington.