In theory, the basic foundation of public broadcasting is its ability to stay above the whoring and general boot licking practiced by commercial stations. PBS is good and pure, a haven for programming uninterrupted by the greedy pursuit of profit.
At least that's the happy talk they serve up during every money-grubbing fundraising drive, when they interrupt programming to beg for your money.
And, sure enough, good and decent folk willingly pledge their baby's diaper money, knowing that at least PBS offers something more than celebrity boxing. It is generally agreed that the world is a better place with PBS than without it, even if the managers are too lunkheaded to find a better way to raise money than low-rent versions of the Jerry Lewis telethon.
Most of the PBS audience-which, by definition, is seeking something a bit more interesting than a Michael Tuck exposé on dandruff that can kill you-understands that the concept of PBS as "commercial free" is a little inside joke. Everybody chuckles along when PBS managers say those spots where corporations pitch themselves are not commercials, just "sponsorships."
Trolling for money is part of the PBS game, as managers try to figure out how to maintain the relevancy of their little alternative-programming paradise. After all, there are all sorts of cable channels providing bad British comedies and antique shows these days.
As PBS struggles to navigate this cold, cruel world, San Diego's own public broadcasting affiliate, KPBS, is often held up as a shining example of a progressive public station. It manages to produce a modest level of local programming and news, while showing "creativity" in its efforts to dredge money from the community.
From innovative sponsorship deals to focusing funding on programs that are sure not to offend anyone-like its documentary on surfing-KPBS expertly walks the thin line, attempting to provide a service while still paying the electric bill. So last year, for example, KPBS fans could applaud the station's documentary exploring the impact of big-box retailers on communities, Superstores, and still cringe at the idea that the program was partially funded by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, a fairly clear conflict of interest.
KPBS' latest display of corporate creativity is a new deal with Mission Federal Credit Union to set up a website promoting financial education (www.sdfinancialeducation.
org) that offers information "on common financial concerns" such as preventing identity theft, building credit and managing debt. According to a Mission Federal press release, the partnership is driven by the genuine desire of both organizations to "empower individuals to make sound financial decisions."
Of course, if people are still confused, they can always give the friendly folks at Mission Federal a call, using the handy link available on the site. In other words, it doesn't take the mind of depraved cynic to suggest that this is an obvious promotion for the Mission Federal Credit Union, more than some deep-rooted humanitarian effort. (As a credit union, Mission Federal is technically "not for profit," but it is still in competition with other financial institutions for customers.)
If the KPBS management team was truly worried about San Diegans' sad lack of financial planning advice, they could have simply added information on "financial education" to its own website. For that matter, Mission Federal could have put the information under the umbrella of its own website, and KPBS in turn could have encouraged its audience to visit the site. But that would have appeared unseemly, the idea that KPBS would use its good name to directly promote a commercial enterprise.
By creating a separate financial planning website, co-sponsored by both KPBS and Mission Federal, both can maintain the illusion of respectability. Mission Federal gets a chance to reach out to new customers and KPBS keeps its veneer of purity, while jumping into bed with a corporate partner.
The main thing KPBS appears to bring to the package is its credibility and name, leaving the distinct impression that both are up for bid. KPBS' willingness to use its brand to promote the new partnership will certainly help drive people to the site, under the assumption that Sdfinancialeducation.org must be something more than another come-on from a financial institution.
All in all, it's a sweet deal, especially for Mission Federal, which gets a chance to feed off KPBS' wavering thread of integrity. More than likely, given the chance, the credit union would have made this type of deal with any of the better-watched affiliates in town, but they probably salivated over the KPBS demographic, that legion of documentary-watching baby boomers. And PBS already opened the door for this type of thing with its thinly disguised Suze Orman infomercials, which were, coincidentally, huge fundraising hits for the network.
No one would care, except public broadcasting begs you to send it money, based on the idea that it will never succumb to the same slutty money games played by the commercial stations.
As KPBS management explores the boundaries, it leads to obvious questions. Now that they've linked with the credit union, will they work a deal with an insurance company for an insurance information site? Or maybe they'll partner with used car dealers who would like to offer car-purchasing tips. Or maybe they could get someone to wear a giant squirrel costume and wave a KPBS flag out in front of Del Taco, trying to lure drivers in for bean burritos.
That's the problem with selling out your good name. Once you start, it's hard to stop.
Write to MsBeak1@aol.com and editor@SD citybeat.com.