What are the PBS National Underwriting Guidelines?

PBS’ Underwriting Guidelines (officially The PBS National Program Funding Standards and Practices), which govern national sponsorship messages, are a form of self-regulation and can be found online here. These are derived from federal requirements regarding the difference between an acceptable underwriting message and an “advertisement,” which is prohibited.   In addition to addressing the content of underwriting messages, they also deal with whether a potential funder is appropriate in a given circumstance, or in any circumstance.  A station has the option to use the PBS Underwriting Guidelines for the local underwriting credit approval process or to set a policy for local station use alone.  

The PBS Guidelines rest on three fundamental principles:

  • Journalistic Integrity: Public television is a major participant in the great tradition of a free and independent American press. Therefore, public television must protect its journalistic integrity and it must reinforce the accurate perception that it is a free and independent institution.z
  • Noncommercial Nature: Public television's nonprofit, noncommercial status contributes to its independence and public television also enjoys certain financial and other benefits by virtue of its noncommercial, nonprofit status. Therefore, its noncommercial character must be preserved.
  • Diversity of Funding: The diversity of program funding sources is a key element in the preservation of a free and independent public television system. Therefore, these guidelines should encourage national program underwriting from all corners of the public and private sector.  

As for assessing the appropriateness of a potential underwriter for a national program, PBS will examine the funder and the program to ensure that the underwriter meets the three-part test:

  • Editorial Control Test:  Has the funder exercised editorial control?  Could it?

  • Perception Test Might the public perceive that the underwriter has exercised editorial control? 
  • Commercialism Test:  Might the public conclude the program is on public television principally because it promotes the underwriter’s products, services or other business interests?

These tests, and examples applying their principles, are described in detail in the PBS Underwriting GuidelinesOnly after a funder has been determined acceptable does PBS evaluate the proposed on-air credit for suitability under the Guidelines and pursuant the legal requirements imposed by the FCC.