Tuesday, August 03, 1999

Direct mail necessary for public TV

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        PASADENA, Calif. — Public TV stations have been banned from swapping membership lists with political parties and campaigns, but they won't be stopped from conducting all direct mail solicitations.

        Why? Because direct mail campaigns have been become the lifeblood of public stations, accounting for one-fourth of their annual income, says Ervin Duggan, president and CEO of the Public Broadcasting Service.

        “Many of our largest stations that are most deeply involved in direct mail attribute 25 percent of their income to direct mail fund-raising. That is a very important source,” he told TV critics at the summer press tour here.

        Cincinnati's WCET-TV, which made headlines Saturday because it had rented a list of Clinton-Gore donors for a fund-raising solicitation, says direct mail comprises 25 percent of its income, according to Phil Meyer, marketing and promotion manager.

        Public TV and radio stations have turned to sophisticated, targeted mail campaigns in recent years as Congress has threatened to slice, or curtail, federal subsidies.

        Direct mail campaigns “are tremendously important, and that's why we need to focus on list practices that are the right kind of list practices, rather than abandoning all direct mail fund-raising,” Mr. Duggan says. “We need to do this in the right way.”

        The issue came to light last month when Boston's WGBH-TV, which produces Mystery!, Frontline, Nova, The American Experience and Masterpiece Theatre, admitted it had given its membership list to the Democratic National Committee.

        A station survey by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which funnels federal money to stations, determined that “between 30 and 50” of the 349 PBS stations have been engaged in list rental and list exchange, Mr. Duggan says.

        U.S. Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., chairman of the House Commerce Committee's subcommittee on telecommunications, said Friday that Channel 48 violated federal law by renting the Clinton-Gore list. Channel 48 officials said they don't believe they have done anything illegal.

        According to Mr. Duggan, the CPB survey showed that the list exchange problem was a bi-partisan one. Stations have exchanged member information with Bob Dole's 1996 Republican presidential campaign, other conservative Republican organizations and the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank, he says.

        “It really has nothing to do with politics,” he says. “This is about the sometimes frenetic and desperate search for names that represent contributions.”

        Channel 48 stopped using a “list broker” in December. It now participates in a list co-op with 10 public TV stations, including Dayton, Cleveland, Salt Lake City and Boston's WGBH-TV, says Scott Elliott, Channel 48 vice president and general manager.

        “We approve the lists before they are acquired,” Mr. Elliott says.

        Unlike WGBH-TV, “we are not selling our names to anybody, and we haven't,” he says.

        PBS stations will halt all exchanges with partisan groups by the end of this week, Mr. Duggan says. The CPB survey should be completed in a few weeks, before Congress re-convenes.

        “If the nation, and the Congress, sees the self-critical, self-reforming and self-renewal instruments of public television at work, dealing with this problem effectively ourselves, there is no need for an over-reaction legislatively. There is no need to punish by restricting (our) funding,” he says.

        Channel 48 will receive about $750,000 of its $7 million budget this year from the $300 million congressional allocation to PBS.

        John Kiesewetter is reporting from the TV critics' press tour.


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