Saturday, September 25, 2004

The Internet Telethon?

On the same day that I noted Wikipedia's fund drive campaign, which seems like a novel but inevitable path for popular non-commercial sites to go down, I noticed that one of our local public television stations, WHYY, was having one of its pledge drives.

A sidetrack here for my international readers: most commercial American TV stations interrupt their programs several times an hour for a few minutes of advertisements. Most metro areas are served by one or two public television stations which allow no traditional advertising other than acknowledgements of underwriters. The programming on public TV (and radio) is usually more educational or cultural in nature. For many Americans, public television is their only venue for receiving international programming, especially BBC broadcasts. (It's also where we get our muppet fix through Sesame Street.) The system is funded through a combination of government subsidy (ever-declining since the Reagan era) and donations from foundations and individuals. The tradeoff for months of commercial-free TV is the occasional "pledge drive." During a typical week-plus telethon, all of the station's most popular oldies-but-goodies and major events are shown, interrupted at regular intervals by LOOONG and TEEEEEDIOUS pitches from the local station's notables. "Call now with your donation of $120...that's just $10 a month...and we'll also send you this WHYY tote bag. Here's Jeff to tell us how much he loves using his tote bag when he goes to the local library." Sprinkle in a few reminders that we're freeloaders if our kids watch Teletubbies on public TV and we don't make a donation.... You get the idea.

American Public TV basically uses the shareware model of distribution. It's an honor system enforced by scheduled annoyance.

That brings me back to my slow-moving train of thought. I started to wonder if we'll ever see the next logical step in fundraising for "free" content on the Internet. I can imagine it would go a little something like this...

I've just found a great audio clip of an interview I want to listen to. I click on the link. My media player fires up, and—

"We'll get to the recording you've just selected in a moment, but first we wanted to let you know that this site can only continue to exist through your generous support. You know how important it is to be able to find the kind of engaging, interesting, and educational materials that you've come to expect from us. Won't you please take a moment now to become a member of this site by making a donation? If you make your donation right now, we'll be thrilled to send you this lovely mouse pad with the clever "Catch the .wav!" logo. Here's a message from our webmaster, Jeff, to tell you more about how he uses his mouse pad."

Additional reading:
The Wikipedia entry on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). (How perfect is that confluence?)

An older article from, discussing the problems that even those within the public broadcasting community have pledge drives.


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