following program is brought to you by a grawnt" -- pronunciation
intended -- "from Mobil Oil Corp.," said a plumy voice introducing Masterpiece Theatre
on PBS in 1970. That was the best 14-word commercial in the history of
advertising. It convinced the "above average with the highest IQ"
demographic -- the only kind that watched public television -- that
Mobil Oil, now Exxon Mobil (NYSE: XOM), was the good guy, not the villain the rest of us may have thought during the gas crisis of the 1970s.
The resulting corporate good will was so marvelous that we soon found
great drama, music, and documentaries brought to us by Exxon, Atlantic
Richfield (ARCO), Shell (NYSE: RDS.A), Chevron (NYSE: CVX), and BP (NYSE: BP), which now owns ARCO. It was not for nothing that PBS was known then as the Petroleum Broadcasting System.
By 2000, instead of the letter Z and the number two, kids heard Sesame Street being brought to them by Pfizer (NYSE: PFE),
the maker of Zithromax, an antibiotic for treating ear infections.
("More information about Zithromax is just a click away," kids were told
while looking at images of zebras and a giant toy block.)
Before we knew it, Tony the Tiger was pushing Kellogg Co. (NYSE: K) and its Frosted Flakes on PBS Kids, because the cereal was good for you. Chuck E. Cheese (NYSE: CEC), the pizza people, got in on the act by proudly supporting Arthur.
Its sponsorship may have helped kids read while gaining weight. A
menagerie of corporate mascots were cavorting all over the early morning
kiddie shows, with the clown prince, McDonald's (NYSE: MCD) Ronald, preaching the doctrine of Happy Meals and fun under the Golden Arches.
But seeing all this on public TV, the alternative to commercial TV,
was nothing compared to what has happened recently. A federal court has
ruled that public TV and radio can run political ads by candidates and
their political action committees. Banning them violates the First
Amendment, according to the 2-to-1 decision by the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The ruling repealed an FCC fine against KMPT-TV in San Francisco for running paid ads from companies such as State Farm and the Chevrolet division of General Motors (NYSE: GM).
Though the decision left politically active corporations like Koch Industries
and educational groups like Restore Our Future thinking they were
dreaming, there is one problem. The decision is against the law. The
Communications Act of 1934 specifically forbids noncommercial
broadcasters from airing any kind of advertisements, defined as messages
that "promote any service, facility, or product" for profit.
The judges must have been misled in their interpretation by public TV
programming (especially shows for vulnerable kids), which sometimes
seems to have as many commercials as commercial TV. Only they're called
"enhanced underwriter acknowledgments" instead of "commercials."
Whatever you call them, smart investors listening to the PBS NewsHour have a good idea what the Charles Schwab Corp.
(NYSE: SCHW) "enhanced underwriter acknowledgment" really means when it
says, "Talk to Chuck." It's not "Ask Chuck who he likes in the Kentucky
Public TV metaphysicians, aided and abetted by the FCC, have managed
to find more holes in the once sacred law than Swiss cheese. But the
golden age of commercials on the alternative is about to begin with the
restoration of First Amendment rights to the egghead audience.
It would be great if deep-pocketed super PAC funders like the Koch
brothers were cueing up inspiring messages. Alexander Hamilton reading
from The Federalist Papers.
Thomas Jefferson on the separation of church and state. James Madison
on the Fifth Amendment. Or even George Washington Plunkett of Tammany
Hall, who first said, "I seen my opportunities and took 'em."
But my guess is they will be using the same plots that worked so well
on commercial TV back in the days when public TV's free speech rights
were being denied. You remember -- the scurrilous out-of-context quotes;
the ad hominem, scandalous smears that proved so effective against the wannabes; the "Swift boat-style" attack ads.
In this new ad nauseam age, what will be coming next on the commercially impaired PBS? Enhanced underwriter acknowledgments for Cialis from Eli Lilly (NYSE: LLY), "so you'll always be ready when the next attack ad strikes?"