"The following program is brought to you by a grawnt" -- pronunciation intended -- "from Mobil Oil Corp.," said a plumy voice introducing Masterpiece Theatre on PBS in 1970. That was the best 14-word commercial in the history of advertising. It convinced the "above average with the highest IQ" demographic -- the only kind that watched public television -- that Mobil Oil, now Exxon Mobil (NYSE: XOM), was the good guy, not the villain the rest of us may have thought during the gas crisis of the 1970s.
The resulting corporate good will was so marvelous that we soon found great drama, music, and documentaries brought to us by Exxon, Atlantic Richfield (ARCO), Shell (NYSE: RDS.A), Chevron (NYSE: CVX), and BP (NYSE: BP), which now owns ARCO. It was not for nothing that PBS was known then as the Petroleum Broadcasting System.
By 2000, instead of the letter Z and the number two, kids heard Sesame Street being brought to them by Pfizer (NYSE: PFE), the maker of Zithromax, an antibiotic for treating ear infections. ("More information about Zithromax is just a click away," kids were told while looking at images of zebras and a giant toy block.)
Before we knew it, Tony the Tiger was pushing Kellogg Co. (NYSE: K) and its Frosted Flakes on PBS Kids, because the cereal was good for you. Chuck E. Cheese (NYSE: CEC), the pizza people, got in on the act by proudly supporting Arthur. Its sponsorship may have helped kids read while gaining weight. A menagerie of corporate mascots were cavorting all over the early morning kiddie shows, with the clown prince, McDonald's (NYSE: MCD) Ronald, preaching the doctrine of Happy Meals and fun under the Golden Arches.
But seeing all this on public TV, the alternative to commercial TV, was nothing compared to what has happened recently. A federal court has ruled that public TV and radio can run political ads by candidates and their political action committees. Banning them violates the First Amendment, according to the 2-to-1 decision by the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The ruling repealed an FCC fine against KMPT-TV in San Francisco for running paid ads from companies such as State Farm and the Chevrolet division of General Motors (NYSE: GM).
Though the decision left politically active corporations like Koch Industries and educational groups like Restore Our Future thinking they were dreaming, there is one problem. The decision is against the law. The Communications Act of 1934 specifically forbids noncommercial broadcasters from airing any kind of advertisements, defined as messages that "promote any service, facility, or product" for profit.
The judges must have been misled in their interpretation by public TV programming (especially shows for vulnerable kids), which sometimes seems to have as many commercials as commercial TV. Only they're called "enhanced underwriter acknowledgments" instead of "commercials."
Whatever you call them, smart investors listening to the PBS NewsHour have a good idea what the Charles Schwab Corp. (NYSE: SCHW) "enhanced underwriter acknowledgment" really means when it says, "Talk to Chuck." It's not "Ask Chuck who he likes in the Kentucky Derby."
Public TV metaphysicians, aided and abetted by the FCC, have managed to find more holes in the once sacred law than Swiss cheese. But the golden age of commercials on the alternative is about to begin with the restoration of First Amendment rights to the egghead audience.
It would be great if deep-pocketed super PAC funders like the Koch brothers were cueing up inspiring messages. Alexander Hamilton reading from The Federalist Papers. Thomas Jefferson on the separation of church and state. James Madison on the Fifth Amendment. Or even George Washington Plunkett of Tammany Hall, who first said, "I seen my opportunities and took 'em."
But my guess is they will be using the same plots that worked so well on commercial TV back in the days when public TV's free speech rights were being denied. You remember -- the scurrilous out-of-context quotes; the ad hominem, scandalous smears that proved so effective against the wannabes; the "Swift boat-style" attack ads.
In this new ad nauseam age, what will be coming next on the commercially impaired PBS? Enhanced underwriter acknowledgments for Cialis from Eli Lilly (NYSE: LLY), "so you'll always be ready when the next attack ad strikes?"