Thinking Inside the Box


by Ellis Bromberg, General Manager of MPTV

The other day I received a call from a viewer inquiring about a phrase we use in some of our promotional materials: "MPTV...there's nothing commercial about it!" The caller noted that we air underwriting announcements which often look like commercials you see on commercial television stations.

It's a fair observation. Some of the companies that underwrite programs on MPTV have chosen to convey messages in their underwriting that are similar to those you might see on their commercial spots. So is there "nothing commercial" about what we do?

How did we make the decision to use the phrase? In conversations among our staff and with viewers several years ago, we tried to identify a few key attributes of our stations that differ from those of all the other television stations in town. Two of those that surfaced were the quality of our programming, and the fact that we are a noncommercial station.

We talk about the quality of our programs frequently and in different ways, but it occurred to us that we didn't speak as often about the fact that we are noncommercial.

Yet letters from our viewers indicate that our noncommercial status is a significant reason they enjoy our stations and are willing to contribute their dollars to ensure that MPTV will continue to be an alternative to commercial television. So we decided to pick up on that sentiment in some of our promotion: "MPTV...there's nothing commercial about it!"

There are other reasons we can use that phrase with honesty:

* Firstly, our stations are licensed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as noncommercial stations. If our licensee, Milwaukee Area Technical College, was ever to consider selling the stations, the new owners would have to run both WMVS and WMVT as noncommercial operations. In addition, our sister fundraising organization, the MPTV Friends, is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) group. So in every legal way we are considered noncommercial.

* Secondly, the announcements we run identifying funders of our programs are not commercials; they are underwriting announcements. There is a significant difference between those. Since we are noncommercial, the language and images we can use in our announcements are strictly limited by the FCC. We have a notebook of guidelines that prohibit us from airing many commercial messages you see on other stations. You will not see, as examples, calls to action ("pick up the phone now!"), or any references to prices, or endorsements ("four out of five doctors recommend it for headache pain") on our underwriting announcements. We frequently tell potential underwriters they must strike specific words or images from their proposed underwriting announcements. Sometimes it means we lose potential underwriters who prefer their messages to be overtly commercial.

* Thirdly, unlike commercial stations, we generally do not interrupt programs for underwriting messages. When we air NOVA, for instance, you see a full hour of NOVA straight through; the underwriting announcements are at the beginning and the end. That is obviously very different from what you find on commercial television.

* Fourthly, but probably most significantly: we do not make program decisions based on the commercial success of a program - and that is really why there is "nothing commercial" about us. Many of our programs air without any underwriting at all. When we discuss what programs we will schedule, whether they have underwriting is not an important factor in the decision. I would argue that the kind of programs you see on Milwaukee Public Television are dramatically different from those our commercial and cable colleagues schedule day in, day out - and a primary reason is that the commercial success of a program is one of the key reasons in their, but not our, assessment of it.

Many of our viewers understand this distinction between commercial and noncommercial broadcasting, but still wish they didn't have to sit through underwriting spots on MPTV. Couldn't we accept money from donors - which we need to produce and acquire programming, keep transmitting, and pay our bills - but not acknowledge those donors in underwriting announcements? I'm afraid not. Noncommercial stations must, by law, identify program funders. It is not optional. We do try to ensure, however, that our underwriting announcements not only fall within legal guidelines but are tasteful and accurate.

We think our status as a noncommercial, educational operation, in addition to the quality of our programming, sets us apart from the rest of the TV stations in southeastern Wisconsin. And by using the phrase "MPTV ... there's nothing commercial about it," we are sharing that thought with you.

Ellis Bromberg
MPTV General Manager