Could PBS be next media merger target?

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Y&R brand study values public TV highly

It's hard to imagine a better fit between two media brands than Disney and ABC, and there appear to be no brand benefits to the Westinghouse/CBS deal. But what about PBS as a takeover target?

Young & Rubicam's Brand Asset Valuator study, an ongoing survey of more than 3,500 respondents' perceptions of more than 8,500 brands worldwide, turned up the conventional wisdom on the big media deals of recent weeks. Advertising Age asked Y&R to assess what potential media brand mergers would make the most sense.

The results are quite logical from a branding perspective, even if they never come about for business reasons. Most startling may be the conclusion PBS is the most eligible brand for acquisition.

That's right, the Public Broadcasting Service. The people who've brought us everything from "Barney" to "Nova," all under the guise of non-commercial, educational motivation.

Plotting PBS on an axis that illustrates the most critical elements of a brand's perception, including stature and strength, Y&R found PBS is one of the most powerful media brands.

"In terms of being a differentiated proposition, PBS would fall right behind Disney," said Stuart Agres, director of corporate research at the New York-based agency. "In terms of stature, it's ahead of Fox but not as strong as any of the Big 3 networks."

"What's incredible is how strong the PBS brand is, even though a lot of people aren't familiar with it," he said. "But in terms of differentiation and personal relevance, it is the No. 2 media brand among the total population."

Mr. Agres said the findings suggest that PBS would not only be an incredible asset for an entertainment content producer looking for a branded distribution outlet but that a merger with a broader entertainment company could actually strengthen the PBS brand by making it accessible to a wider audience of consumers.

"It is within the legal realm of possibility," said PBS spokesman Stu Kantor. "Could it happen that PBS could be bought? Yes."

But Mr. Kantor added that's unlikely, because it would be unclear how a merger with a bigger entertainment company would benefit its charter, which is essentially to produce and distribute programming for the non-profit public TV stations.

But at a time when federal and public support of public TV is waning and when public TV stations are being asked to consider more contributions from the corporate sector, Y&R's Mr. Agres said a PBS merger might make sense.

Mr. Kantor said all that would be required to sell or merge PBS would be some type of "affirmative decision" by a majority of public TV stations, which own PBS.

Y&R's Mr. Agres believes a logical buyer would be a large, vertically integrated entertainment company that has already taken a major position in children's and educational-oriented programming. Viacom, which owns Nickelodeon, and Turner Broadcasting System, which owns the Cartoon Network, come to mind.

Another logical PBS suitor would be Discovery Communications, whose Discovery Channel and Learning Channel already compete head-to-head with PBS programming genres.

Beyond Disney, ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, Turner's CNN and Viacom's MTV, Mr. Agres said none of the media brands tracked by Y&R emerges as powerful enough to be a significant factor in a merger play.

As for a better suitor for CBS, Mr. Agres said that virtually any brand other than Westinghouse might make sense, but Turner's CNN brand would likely be most complementary to CBS' News brand among most consumers.

Copyright August 1995 Crain Communications Inc.

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