How will new public-private partnerships affect public broadcasting perceptions?

Public-private partnerships are increasingly important for public broadcasters.
Date Published

On August 13, 2015, an unprecedented event occurred in public broadcasting. Sesame Workshop announced a five-year deal with the HBO Company to air first-run episodes of the iconic children’s television show Sesame Street first on premium cable channel HBO. For the first time, a flagship public broadcasting franchise will move primarily to a premium cable channel. Public broadcasters saw an immediate backlash, due to the program’s position in modern American culture.

It’s clear that the circumstances in public broadcasting have changed dramatically. While no stranger to the idea of public-private partnerships, stations are starting to see changes in the relationship between them and their corporate sponsors. Station managers have to consider their funding sources and make adjustments so that they’re not lost in the shifts of media consumption.

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It’s important to understand the circumstances of the Sesame Street deal as a whole. According to The New York Times, the deal works out as follows. HBO will fund 35 half-hour episodes of Sesame Street per year for five years. These episodes will run exclusively on HBO and its streaming outlets like HBO Go for a period of nine months. After that, they will be available for broadcast on PBS stations.

In addition, the deal will allow the Sesame Workshop, Sesame Street’s producer, to work on two new children’s series, including a Sesame Street spinoff that involves Jim Henson’s Muppets. It is unclear whether these two new series will be publicly available after nine months. The pact also included a license to 150 archived episodes of Sesame Street along with 50 episodes of the animated series Pinky Dinky Doo and the 2009 reboot of the classic children’s series The Electric Company.

Backlash was swift, in part because of the perception that a national public treasure for disadvantaged children would be placed behind a paywall for the affluent. However, as Variety noted, many critics of the plan, especially adults who grew up on Sesame Street, fail to understand the reasons why it happened. PBS has only been responsible for 10 percent of Sesame Street’s production budget in recent years. This makes sense, given that the operating budget of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was only $445 million in fiscal year 2014, and the vast majority of that spending went towards funding station operations. Sesame Workshop would make up the remaining 90 percent through physical media sales such as DVD.

This system worked until recently, when the rise of streaming services changed children’s viewing habits from a fixed schedule on television to watching on demand through a mobile device such as a tablet or smartphone. Many public broadcasters simply lack the means to keep up technologically with services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, and viewership fell. The Sesame Workshop posted an $11 million loss and 14 percent year-per-year decline in operating revenues in 2014. The partnership was essentially necessary.

“In order to fund our nonprofit mission with a sustainable business model, Sesame Workshop must recognize these changes and adapt to the times,” Joan Ganz Cooney, co-creator of Sesame Street, told the New York Times.

Understanding the private role
While many critics called for CPB’s receipt of more funding from the federal government to address these issues, political gridlock in Washington means that such a solution will remain impossible for the foreseeable future. So what happens now for public broadcasters who will likely take a greater hit in viewership, now that their flagship children’s series is clearly seen as being secondhand?

The answer lies in the partnerships that these stations already have with private support. HBO has demonstrated that, with effort, public broadcasting can stand to gain more generous support from corporate sponsorship. Expanding on the parameters of public-private partnership may serve as an ideal way to keep major budget sinks such as programming afloat without burdening personal donors.

Expanding on public-private partnerships can bear a lot of fruit, even at government levels of support. Intuit, in an article for The Hill, discussed a recent security summit that brought the IRS together with several tax software companies to discuss cybersecurity for taxes. The results were quite effective: The tax agency set up a three-part strategic framework to address the issue.

Public broadcasters don’t have to necessarily conduct high-level meetings, but they can expand upon their partnerships by bringing corporate sponsors into a larger role. By establishing a closer relationship with local companies, broadcasters can offer them the opportunity to play a bigger role in the community. Many companies are incorporating corporate social responsibility into their business models, establishing that their purpose is not just to turn a profit but also give to the greater good of those around them. Building up corporate partnerships can help mitigate the funding gaps and give private donors a better foothold into their communities.

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