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Friday, August 1, 2014
PBS Ombudsman

Las Vegas: Did PBS Load the Dice?

One of the best and most respected programs offered by PBS — the continuing series of documentaries known as the "American Experience" — came in for some challenge in recent weeks from a small number of viewers and reviewers; really just a handful. But, as is often the case, it is the quality of the challenge, not just the number of complaints, that is worth pondering.

The "American Experience" program involved a two-part, three-hour documentary, "Las Vegas: An Unconventional History," that aired in mid-November. It was produced by one of PBS's premier member stations, WGBH in Boston, and by two acclaimed producers, Amanda Pollack and Stephen Ives. Ives, who produced the award-winning PBS documentary "Seabiscuit," was also the director.

The program was produced to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the founding of the city. But the film never quite explains that link in discussing the centennial. The series was aired widely around the nation and indications are that it achieved above-average viewership for prime-time programs.

As a viewer, I generally enjoyed and appreciated this film. I thought it captured, in a lively, intelligent and expressive way, the life and times of one of the truly iconic cities of America, and the world. According to the narrator, by 1999, Las Vegas was drawing some 37 million tourists annually from all over the world, eclipsing even the holy city of Mecca as the most visited place on the planet.

The program, I thought, did have a boosterish quality to it at times, but there are, of course, lots of things that lots of people like about this extraordinary place and that is going to be part of any portrait. It also seemed to me to be missing some other voices — perhaps more distant from the city — that take a more critical view of today's Las Vegas and what it may say about us. There was certainly some of that but I felt not enough. On the other hand, it generated almost no criticism from viewers, as far as I can tell.

In the small, fly-specking world of ombudsmen, critics and reviewers, however, what was most interesting — and at least potentially troubling — was the sponsorship of this series.

The long-running series known as the "American Experience" got overall funding of about $15 million this year for about 18 hours of programming, including 13 new programs, according to PBS. The great majority of that money comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS station support, PBS officials say. Other longtime outside supporters of "American Experience" are the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Liberty Mutual Insurance Co., and Scotts Miracle-Gro Products. All of those, and the CPB, were recognized on the Las Vegas program.

But the Las Vegas two-parter also was funded by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, the University of Nevada - Las Vegas, and the Greenspun Family Foundation. All of this was also flashed on the screen, including the logo and Web address for the Visitors Authority.

Brian Greenspun is president and editor of the Las Vegas Sun newspaper and is quoted eight times in the program. But he is identified only by his name and the sub-title "editor" in the documentary. The newspaper's name is not mentioned.

On Nov. 21, viewer John Emery from Boston wrote to me and asked "am I the only one who finds it suspect" that the Las Vegas series was sponsored by those Las Vegas institutions. "Are a few extra bucks worth the risk of creating the perception that editorial influence is for sale — particularly at a time when all of public broadcasting is under such intense scrutiny?" At the time, Emery was the only one who wrote to me about this.

But before then, on Nov. 12, National Public Radio interviewer Scott Simon raised the question of sponsorship and possible compromising of interests during an interview with director Ives.

When the series premiered on Nov. 14, Charlie McCollum wrote in the San Jose (California) Mercury News that he knows "PBS is stretched for cash" but "taking bucks from people with a vested interest in how a documentary comes out creates an unpleasant smell. Certainly, that's the case when it involves the highly regarded 'American Experience,' one of PBS's signature series." McCollum goes on to give high marks for the series itself and says the questionable funding doesn't seem to have affected Ives' work.

Another raised eyebrow came from Doug Elfman, a transplanted Las Vegan writing for the Chicago Sun-Times. Noting the sponsorship, he wrote "The documentary seems like a moving picture of a brochure on the 100-year history of the city — running, no less, in conjunction with the city's promotional campaign for its centennial."

Then on Dec. 1, Jeffrey Chester, the director of an organization called the "Center for Digital Democracy," weighed in with a letter urging me "to investigate the relationship of public television's underwriting policies and its journalism," pointing out that "these three underwriters all have a stake in the economic well being of Las Vegas" and asking if PBS "in any way sought to create a program or modify its editorial content based on the interests or perspectives of the underwriters."


Lots of Guidelines

My first column, which appeared Dec. 2, was about another PBS documentary, "Breaking the Silence: Children's Stories." In that column I said the network's editorial guidelines "are quite thorough and cover lots of situations. In fact, you can find rationales for most approaches to programs in one section or another."

Working on this, my second column, I have discovered that this personal assessment is also largely true about PBS's "National Program Funding Standards and Practices."

I'll come back to those guidelines in a moment, but first let me state my newcomer's view here, meaning that I don't know the ins and outs of program financing yet or how hard it is to get funding these days, although I'm told it isn't easy. Nor am I privy to the discussions that went into this decision.

My journalistic instinct, however, is that WGBH made a mistake in asking for and accepting funding from the Las Vegas entities and PBS executives made a mistake in approving that approach. While those other longtime sponsors of "American Experience" listed above provide the great majority of funding for the 13-programs over the course of the year, it turns out that about half of the funding for the two-part Las Vegas documentary was provided by the local Las Vegas entities, according to PBS and WGBH officials.

It is easy for me to say you shouldn't have done that. But, as an outsider, it would seem that this well-done, fast-paced program about a city that attracts 37 million visitors, and that a lot of Americans have a connection to, would have been a pretty good bet to attract whatever additional funding was needed from enough other sources.

PBS, WGBH and Ives state convincingly that absolute editorial independence, and non-interference, is always the rule. And the lack of negative viewer reaction, at least as far as I can tell, suggests to me that the program was not perceived by the public as unduly influenced by some of the sponsors.

But I thought Mr. Emery from Boston hit it on the head: the few extra bucks aren't worth it. Indeed, even if it was more than a few extra bucks, it wasn't worth it. There are precious few top-notch, independent documentaries being produced by American television, and those associated with and presented by PBS are certainly among the best and most important. Too much is at stake here in terms of the credibility of a very important American outlet to chance even the perception of influence.

A key point from the "Policy Objectives" section of the PBS standards and practices guidelines says, "That funding arrangements will not create the perception that editorial control had been exercised by someone other than the producer, or that the program has been inappropriately influenced by its funding sources." Three aspects of the guidelines for funding acceptability are involved here: editorial control, perception and commercialism.


In the Eye of the Beholder

On editorial control, PBS's senior director for program project management and underwriting policy, Cathy Hogan, says, "We have absolute confidence that none of the funders in fact exercised any editorial control. The editorial practices of WGBH, the 'American Experience' production unit, and WGBH's contractual and management practices related to funders are long-standing and robust in their protections against inappropriate editorial involvement by funders."

WGBH producer Margaret Drain adds that there was absolutely no input to the film by any funder and that no funder sees the film before it is released to the public.

And Ives said this when questioned by NPR's Scott Simon: "One great thing about working in public television is that there's an absolutely indestructible firewall between funders and filmmakers, and there's absolutely no editorial influence that a funder can possibly, you know, have on what I do or what I say, and I'm sure there's parts of the film that the LV-CVA would wish weren't there. It's a film about the history of a place, and I don't see a conflict there. I mean, it's not like I was doing a corporation's bidding and promoting something that was a product or anything like that."

As far as perception goes, PBS says, "With the predominance of funding from long-standing neutral funders, it is unreasonable to suspect that the interests of the entities based in Las Vegas would outweigh the interests of the entities upon whose significant, loyal and continued support the entire series depends."

That may be true, but in this case the Las Vegas entities paid for half the program and there was no way for viewers to suspect that was the case.

The guidelines also state that, "As PBS has matured and established a reputation for independence and integrity, it has been able to exercise increased latitude with respect to the perception test." And they warn against any sponsorship or program that "would be likely to lead a significant portion of the public to conclude that the program has been influenced by that funder."

Again, the absence of complaints from viewers about this widely watched program would seem to back this up, so I don't think there was a violation of guidelines here.

Nevertheless, it is on this perception point that I think PBS is on thin ice. There was no indication on the screen credits as to whether the Las Vegas organizations were major or minor sponsors. Viewers had no way to know how they fit in. Indeed, the Convention and Visitors Authority was quite prominent and thus the perception of influence could easily have been conveyed. And even if viewers didn't react negatively, some reviewers and commentators did call attention to this, and so that seed gets planted with more of the public.

And if you look at the PBS Web site for the documentary you find, "Special thanks for promotion and advertising support to Steve and Elaine Wynn." This refers to Las Vegas mega-entrepreneur/developer Steve Wynn and his resort director wife, both of whom make multiple appearances in the film. You can't make a documentary about modern Las Vegas without talking to the Wynns. But it would seem best not to have to thank them for anything.

As for the "commercialism test," PBS says, "This is not the first occasion on which a local or regional tourism agency or other local institution has been proposed (and accepted) as a funder. Indeed, because this type of funding source frequently arises in programs focusing on a particular region, its history, and culture, we took the opportunity several years ago to articulate more specifically our policy for accepting "tourism" contributions to such programs.

"We concluded that, if tourist attractions are not showcased but are rather included for academic or scholarly reasons in the context of a documentary program, the funding may be acceptable. In the case of 'Las Vegas,' we believe the aspects of the city that might be related to the interests of the LV-CVA or UN-LV are addressed in ways that are non-promotional and, from a viewer's perspective, tethered clearly to the overarching editorial objectives of the program. Consequently, we concluded that the supplemental funding from the Las Vegas regional entities would be acceptable."

One other thought, planted in my still rather empty head on such topics by an experienced producer, is that when there are obvious funders and naturally interested parties around for special projects — and the case can be made internally that it is not compromising and within the rules — then taking advantage of that money means more left over from the long-term sponsors to do additional programs on other worthy subjects. That, it seems to me, would have been a roll of the dice in this case; a bet that it would turn out okay. For some, at least, it didn't.


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