Public Broadcasting Service

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Public Broadcasting Service

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In 2002 the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), the nonprofit U.S. media organization, was owned by 349 member television stations with an audience of more than 100 million viewers per week. Despite the efforts of CEO Pat Mitchell to "reinvent" PBS with newer, updated shows, including segments directed by Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, and Robert Redford, the broadcaster was reeling from a 23 percent drop in ratings over the previous 10 years. To continue branding PBS as a resource that educated, inspired, and empowered its viewers, the organization released its "Be More" campaign in 2002.

PBS awarded its $15 million advertising budget to longtime partner Fallon Minneapolis, a division of Fallon Worldwide. On July 22 Fallon launched the first four television spots of the "Be More" campaign. Two of the spots were directed by Alfonso Cuarón, the director of such films as Y tu mamá también and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The other two spots were directed by Francois Girard, director of the film The Red Violin. Cuarón's "Fish" spot, which won the greatest number of awards for the campaign, featured a computer-generated image (CGI) of a goldfish watching salmon swim on television. Inspired by the salmon, the goldfish leaped from its bowl and then flopped, jumped, and free-fell its way into a river. The spot ended with the goldfish migrating upstream with the salmon. The spot's tagline was "Be More Empowered." Other variations on "Be More" continued into 2005, with all of the spots airing exclusively on PBS.

Despite garnering an Emmy Award as the best commercial, a Bronze Clio, and two AICP Show honors, the "Be More" campaign was not accompanied by increasing PBS income, which came from underwriting, member fees, grants, product sales, royalties, and license fees. Between 2002 and 2003 total income slipped $35 million. Further, the audience base for PBS continued to migrate to higher-end programs on cable networks like the Discovery Channel and the History Channel. Although the broadcaster was losing viewers, its website ( remained the most popular dot-org website in existence, with an average of 12 million visitors a month. In addition, PBS's TeacherSource website ( was used by 250,000 teachers every month.


PBS was created in 1969 as a government-subsidized organization to provide cultural and educational programming for the public. Because PBS was intended to be noncommercial, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) prohibited the use of commercials. What was called "underwriting" became the only advertising allowed on PBS. Underwriters were allowed to mention their corporations or brand names between programs but were not allowed to promote products or services. In the 1980s, because of dwindling funds for PBS, the FCC allowed some underwriters to purchase what were called "enhanced underwriting acknowledgments," which to critics appeared to be the same as advertisements on commercial networks. The acknowledgments were restricted by the FCC, however, and underwriters did not have the greater freedom offered to sponsors by the commercial networks.

In 2000 PBS hired Fallon to launch a $25 million ad campaign titled "Stay Curious" that attempted to reshape the perception that the broadcaster catered to an "elite" audience. The campaign won several honors, including an Andy and an Emmy Award. Besides the campaign there was another significant development in 2000. Pat Mitchell, who had worked as a cable executive, was hired as the CEO of PBS. The organization was already floundering when she took on the job, however. As A.J. Frutkin expressed it in Media Week, "Viewers often equate PBS programming with spinach. It may be good for them, but they don't want to eat it."

Mitchell approached her job at PBS with the mantra "keep the best, reinvent the rest." Major changes included an updated version of The Forsyte Saga, the BBC series based on the novels of John Galsworthy, and Ken Burns's documentary series on the Civil War. In 2003 she engaged Martin Scorsese to produce The Blues and Robert Redford to produce Skinwalkers, the latter a series based on Tony Hillerman's mystery novels. In one of her most controversial moves, she replaced Louis Rukeyser, who for 32 years had been the popular host of Wall Street Week. Among other daring moves were including a lesbian couple in an episode of a children's television show and creating the Latino drama American Family.

Despite Mitchell's innovations in programming, financial problems continued to haunt PBS. The perpetual catch-22 was that to attract the talent PBS wanted the broadcaster needed corporate sponsorship, but corporate sponsors expected 30- to 60-second commercial spots. Lack of funds hindered PBS from selecting from the talent pool it wanted. John Wilson, senior PBS vice president, told Media Week, "When we say yes to something, we say, 'Yes, and here's a third of your money. So now let's spend the next 18 months looking for the other two-thirds.'"


The target market for PBS included the 18- to 49-year-old viewer who craved literate, informative, high-quality programming. Preferring to target a psychographic, a group with specific attitudes and values, rather than a strict age demographic, PBS was successful during its first decades in capturing an audience. The aim of the "Be More" campaign was to retain the PBS audience, especially between programming segments. Because PBS did not air commercials, the credits and station breaks between programs ran from two and a half to three minutes. This was the time, research showed, that PBS viewers changed over to networks like TLC, Animal Planet, and the Travel Channel. Frutkin wrote in Media Week, "Whereas PBS's often heady subject matter can intimidate the average viewer, cable programs like the Discovery Channel's Walking with Dinosaurs have made dry topics viewer-friendly. Call it PBS Lite."

Some advertisers saw the value of underwriting PBS's "upscale" programming. In addition, compared to commercial broadcasters, there was less clutter on the PBS airwaves. "The maximum number of messages you'll compete with is two," Guy McCarter, senior vice president and director of entertainment marketing at OMD USA, told Media Week.


"Puppets," the spot Scott Hicks directed for the Public Broadcasting Service in 2003, was filmed in Melbourne, Australia, over a period of two days. The spot featured two marionettes, one a hero and the other a villain, fencing inside a puppet tent until the hero liberated himself by cutting off his strings. Australian puppeteers, not actors, were featured in the spot. Fallon's art director, Gerard Caputo, told Shoot that the villain marionette was whimsically named Frank: "We called him Frank because he looked like Frank Zappa."

"We are not ratings-driven. That's not the mandate of PBS. But we do want to expose our programming to the widest possible audience," Jacoba Atlas, a senior vice president, told the Washington Times. One market segment that remained loyal to PBS, especially with the onslaught of satellite television, was made up of those viewers who relished local shows. Other than local news, the commercial networks tended not to air community programming except for the "occasional once-a-week, low-budget, no-resources program in an undesirable time period," wrote Bob Sirott of the Chicago Sun-Times. PBS often satisfied this need. Nonetheless, although PBS claimed more than 100 million viewers per week in 2002, the audience had dropped to 90 million by 2005.


"In many ways, PBS is competing for the same dollars that a cable network like A&E wants. But it can't deliver what A&E can," Laura Caraccioli, vice president/director of Starcom Entertainment, told Media Week. Arts and Entertainment Television Networks (A&E), which was established in 1984, claimed 85 million subscribers by 2003. In 1995 A&E launched the History Channel with a million subscribers, a number that steadily rose to 85 million by 2003. Quality programming, such as the flagship Biography and Law and Order series, even though the latter was subsequently acquired by Turner Network Television (TNT), greatly attributed to A&E's success. A&E also forged shrewd advertising partnerships, especially with Barnes & Noble, which featured A&E's Biography videos in its stores in exchange for on-air promotions. In comparison with PBS, which relied on a composite of ratings, reviews, and Internet responses, which were dubbed its "point of impact," A&E could dazzle advertisers with its ability to quote hard data on the numbers of people who viewed particular ads. In 2002 A&E posted $550 million in sales.

In the mid-1980s John Hendricks, the founder and CEO of Discovery Communications, Inc. (DCI), was struggling against bankruptcy, with only $5,000 in cash and with $1 million owed to the BBC. By 2003, however, he had turned DCI around with the Discovery Channeland claimed subscriptions in more than 85million households. In that same year DCI also operated 170 retail stores. DCI launched its successful website in 2000 to sell games and science and nature videos. Subsequent channels launched by DCI included the Travel Channel, TLC, and Animal Planet, all of which helped the company earn a whopping $1.7 billion in sales by 2003. DCI's market had swelled to 1.2 million sub-scribers worldwide by 2005, overshadowing both A&E and PBS, and it had $605 million in revenue.


Cuarón filmed the first 60-second PBS spots, "Fish" and "Naked Emperor," in Prague over a period of 10 days. "The shoot itself was radically under-funded and considerably ambitious, given the number of scenes we had to do, and [the fact that we had] to make them work exactly in time," Mark Sitley, the producer, told Shoot. "Fish," the campaign's most ambitious spot and an award winner, featured a CGI goldfish that, after being inspired by a program on salmons, escaped from its fishbowl. "Naked Emperor," playing on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Emperor's New Clothes," featured an eastern European-type dictator marching through his bleak, repressed empire. Except for black boots and socks, and momentarily a hard hat, the emperor was stark naked. After passing legions of saluting soldiers and admiring adults, the emperor reached a hallway full of children. "Hey, you're naked," one of the boys blurted out to laughter and the emperor's embarrassment. The tagline "Be More Honest" then appeared.

Because of his Harry Potter commitment, Cuarón declined to work on project when Fallon initially approached him. After reading some of the scripts, however, Cuarón reconsidered the offer. "It was not about selling or convincing anybody to buy anything," he told Shoot. "It was about two beautiful concepts done in an amazing storytelling kind of way. The moment I received them I said, 'I have to do these.'"

After Fallon had approached Girard to direct "Birds" and "Orchestra," the agency met with him in Montreal for 10 days to discuss the project. "As soon as I looked at the boards, I knew I wanted to do them," Girard told Shoot. He filmed both spots in Santa Monica, California. "Birds" featured the well-known Canadian composer Walter Boudreau struggling at the piano with "writer's block" until he looked out a window, where he found inspiration in five telephone wires populated by birds, a scene resembling sheet music. The spot ended with the tagline "Be More Inspired." "Orchestra" featured a sextet interpreting a work by Johannes Brahms, with one cellist performing with Jimi Hendrix-style bravado. It closed with the tagline "Be More Passionate." Girard commented to Shoot, "The spots were perfect for a director. They're such smart ideas. Plus it's a noble cause; everyone wants to support PBS because of the brilliance of its programming."


The decision of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) to create a HIV-positive Muppet character for the South African version of Sesame Street incited a U.S. congressman, Billy Tauzin of Louisiana, to warn PBS not to re-create the character for American programming. Mitchell complied, saying that Sesame Street and PBS did not plan to release the character in the United States. Executives at PBS and Sesame Street felt, however, that the Muppet was an appropriate character for South Africa, where, in 2003, 21.5 percent of the population was living with AIDS.

In 2003 Girard filmed two more spots for the "Be More" campaign, "Aura" and "Hot Potato." Two later spots, "Skunk" and "Puppets," were directed by the Oscar-nominated Scott Hicks, the director of the films Shine and Snow Falling on Cedars. Fallon staff members met with Hicks in Australia, where he preferred to work, and filmed the two spots with the Academy Award-winning cinematographer Dion Beebe.

Particular attention was given to the word that would follow "Be More" in each spot. Mike Gibbs, the Fallon art director, told Adweek, "Picking the right words was a considerable struggle. We were trying to find things that fit the best, that feel like they come from PBS."


By the third year of the "Be More" campaign, it seemed clear that the efforts of PBS to hold on to its viewers were not working. Although more than 100 million people watched PBS weekly in 2002, the number had dropped to 90 million by 2004. CEO Mitchell tried making program changes to coincide with the launch of the "Be More" campaign, for example, introducing reality shows like The 1900 House and Frontier House, but audience numbers continued to decline. In addition, PBS continued to suffer financially. Between 2002 and 2003, for example, the broadcaster's income dropped from $533 million to $498 million.

Some analysts pointed fingers at the confusing sales process at PBS, whereby the broadcaster's top producers, such as WNET in New York and WGBH in Boston, approached sponsors who were then later also solicited by local stations and producers. Other analysts attributed the decline of PBS to the restrictions on corporate commercials. The resulting lack of funding caused talent that PBS would have had to drift during the 1980s to toward wealthy cable networks like DCI and A&E. Despite the continued drift of PBS, Mitchell remained steadfast on the matter of maintaining the broadcaster's policy on sponsorship. She told Media Week, "If we stay the course as the only one not pandering to the lowest common denominator, it's going to pay off."

The "Be More" campaign did strike gold within the ad industry, however. It won a number of awards, including a Bronze Clio, two AICP Show honors (including one in the category of visual effects), and an Emmy for best commercial, the second Emmy for the Fallon-PBS collaboration.


Anderson, Mae. "Fallon Evolves PBS Makeover: 'Be More' Theme Extended in 4 New Commercials." Adweek, September, 8, 2003, p. 34.

Baar, Aaron. "Fallon 'Does More' for PBS." Adweek (eastern ed.), July 29, 2002, p. 6.

Champagne, Christine. "Alfonso Cuarón:" Fish" Reels in the Emmy for Best Primetime Commercial." Shoot, October 17, 2003, p. 36.

―――――――. "Dir. Scott Hicks Puts On a Puppet Show for PBS: Fallon, Minneapolis-Created Commercial Illustrates the Beauty of Being Independent." Shoot, October 3, 2003, p. 10.

Day, Sherri. "PBS Ad by Fallon Picks Up an Emmy." New York Times, September, 18, 2003, p. 6.

Dunlap, Bill. "Winning Techniques: Agency Producers behind the Emmy-Nominated Spots Speak Out." Shoot, August 15, 2003, p. 23.

Eastwood, Alison. "Top Spots." Boards, October 1, 2003, p. 16.

Frutkin, A.J. "Reinventing PBS." Media Week, November 4, 2002.

Garcia, Sandra. "Two Hats: DP Dion Beebe Pulls Strings for PBS." Shoot, October, 31, 2003, p. 18.

Goldrich, Robert. "Fallon's Primetime Catch: Spot Emmy for PBS 'Fish'; Dir. Cuarón Reflects on the Honor and on Working with Agency Creatives." Shoot, September, 19, 2003, p. 1.

―――――――. "Hungry Man, BBDO Top Emmy Noms." Shoot, August 1, 2003, p. 1.

Grossman, Andrew. "'Colonial House' on PBS Schedule: Pubcaster's Strategy Includes New Independent Focus." Hollywood Reporter, July 29, 2002, p. 3.

Lazare, Lewis. "New PBS Spots Take Classy Tack: But High-End Approach May Not Be Enough." Chicago Sun-Times, July 31, 2002, p. 65.

                                            Kevin Teague

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