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PBS to Add Commercials During Shows

Public broadcast execs explain the decision by pointing to the steep drop-off in ratings when traditional messages were aired between shows.

PBS is breaking from its long-term model and adding commercials to shows, PBS officials told member stations at a recent conference in Orlando.

Instead of airing breaks every 50 minutes, as the public broadcaster does now, it will air them every 15 minutes beginning this fall, according to the New York Times. Nature and Nova are two of the shows that will contain corporate and foundation sponsor ads, promotional messages and branding every 15 minutes.

Feelings about the move are mixed.

“One of the biggest things they have to sell is that they are noncommercial,” David D. Oxenford, a partner with the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine, which represents several public broadcasters, told the Times.

Said Alberto Ibargüen, a former PBS board chairman and president and chief executive of the Knight Foundation, "My first reaction is that in any kind of marketing opportunity, if you give up something that is desirable and differentiates you from your competition, it’s too bad, and that’s what this is."

But he said the public broadcaster did not make this move in haste. "The people of PBS would not do this lightly."

John F. Wilson, the chief programming executive for PBS, pointed to the steep drop off of audience members once the promotional spots aired at the end of the shows: "It’s almost as if someone pulled the fire alarm and they scrambled for the exits."

(PBS did not provide specific ratings figures.)

“I’d look really carefully at a Masterpiece drama, at how we’d do that or how often we’d do that,” he added.

Now producers will have to restructure their shows to contain breaks.

“It’s not like this is untested, uncharted territory in some respect,” said Wilson.

Antiques Roadshow  will begin airing sponsor messages in January "between looking at Grandma’s sofa and the 1850s flintlock someone had in their basement,” Oxenford told the Times.