June 3, 2008 / 5:06 PM / in 11 years

Exxon returns to public TV with sponsorship deals

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Exxon Mobil Corp is returning to PBS as a national sponsor, renewing its financial relationship with the public television broadcaster four years after it ended its backing of “Masterpiece Theatre.”

The price of gas is displayed at an Exxon Mobil gas station in Fairfax, Virginia, outside of Washington May 1, 2008. Exxon is returning to PBS as a national sponsor, renewing its financial relationship with the public television broadcaster four years after it ended its backing of "Masterpiece Theatre." REUTERS/Larry Downing

Exxon Mobil, the world’s largest publicly traded company, will partially underwrite the news program “Nightly Business Report” and the science series “NOVA” starting June 9, PBS said on Tuesday.

Until Exxon stopped sponsoring “Masterpiece Theatre” in 2004, the oil company had doled out more than $250 million to sponsor the PBS Sunday drama series over more than 30 years. This time around, Exxon Mobil will sponsor two shows with closer ties to business and science for PBS.

The sponsorship deals come at a time when Exxon is taking in big earnings — and scrutiny from politicians and consumer groups — from sky-high oil prices. In the first quarter alone, it reported a profit of nearly $11 billion, the second-highest for any company in U.S history.

“We are very pleased that ExxonMobil will sponsor ‘NOVA’ and ‘Nightly Business Report,’ both of which play significant roles in the discussion of the most important topics in science and commerce,” PBS Chief Executive Paula Kerger said in a statement.

PBS counts heavily on corporate underwriting to fund its programs, and the loss or addition of a big sponsor can quickly change the fortunes for individual programs.

One well-known PBS show, “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,” is under pressure since losing a key backer last summer when Archer Daniels Midland ended its 14-year sponsorship of the show. Only part of that money has been replaced.

Given the U.S. economic downturn, there are concerns across the TV industry that advertising dollars may dry up as corporations trim budgets and look to other media, like the web, to promote their products.

And while PBS still wins sponsorship from corporations interested in supporting the arts, philanthropy, too, is competitive, and signing longer-term TV sponsorship deals has fallen out of favor.

Exxon’s sponsorship deals calls for it to support both programs through the end of the year, with a renewal option. Financial terms were not released.

“NOVA” is produced by WGBH in Boston, while “Nightly Business Report” is produced by WPBT in Miami.

Editing by Lisa Von Ahn

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