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PBS Ombudsman

More Pledge Madness

March Madness means basketball for most Americans but it also means madness over Pledge Drive programming for some PBS watchers. I've written about this issue several times over the past three years and one of the viewers who wrote to me last week was kind enough to mention all of them.

But the issue hasn't gone away and so it is time to repeat some of the earlier points I've made, and viewers have made, and to ask PBS in stronger terms to clarify to viewers its role in some of the productions that appear on many PBS-affiliated member stations around the country during pledge drives and that ask people to contribute to their local stations and perhaps buy products associated with these pledge programs.

The focus of critical viewer attention this time is an hour-long program called "The UltraMind Solution." It is based on a book of the same name by Dr. Mark Hyman that also carries the subtitle: "Fix Your Broken Brain by Healing Your Body First." The last time I wrote about the pledge issue was the May 15, 2008 column, and it was based on an earlier program called "Change Your Brain, Change Your Life" featuring Dr. Daniel G. Amen, who is described in promotional material as a "best-selling author, psychiatrist and brain-imaging specialist."

There are lots of similarities. The promotion material for the program featuring Hyman is also described as "based on the best-selling, highly acclaimed book." Both the Hyman and Amen programs are distributed by the Executive Program Services, which is not PBS. EPS describes itself as "a major supplier of quality programming to Public Television Stations across the nation" and is "headed by two former PBS programming executives, Alan Foster and Dick Hanratty." First the Amen program, and now the Hyman program, have also both come in for sharp criticism by another physician, Dr. Robert Burton, the former chief of neurology at Mount Zion-UCSF Hospital.

Dr. Burton also happens to be a medical columnist for Salon.com and so his quarrels with both the medical claims in these programs and the lack of vetting or review by either local stations or PBS became much higher profile and undoubtedly spawned even more letters to the ombudsman. And, as in the earlier case and to its credit, Salon.com has also printed rebuttals to Burton, most recently by Hyman.

My Role

My role here, as in the earlier case, is not to judge the science or the medical qualities. I recommend reading the exchanges on Salon.com.

As I have pointed out many times, PBS member stations are all independent; they can run whatever they want, aside from programs distributed by PBS. And since these are member stations, there is no PBS policy requiring them to vet these other programs. But I do think that PBS and the member stations are failing to fulfill an obligation to viewers to make absolutely clear — in unmistakable ways either visually on screen or spoken — that these are not PBS programs, that PBS does not vet them or distribute them. This would seem pretty easy to do, and pretty obvious when it would seem necessary.

This is vitally important, in my view, because it is very clear from any routine scanning of online material by member stations that viewers and readers can easily feel this is PBS and all the trust that goes with that. Virginia Public Television, for example, advertises the $365 package of items linked to Dr. Hyman's program as "exclusive to public television." A sponsor of the pledge program, Immuno Laboratories, publishes on its Web site the times and broadcast dates nationwide when "PBS will be showing The UltraMind Solution with Dr. Mark Hyman." It appears that hundreds of stations use this and similar programs.

Whatever the values or flaws of these programs, when they appear on local PBS-member stations, along with the other accompanying material I just cited, viewers have a right to be told that this does not mean it has some PBS seal of approval that conveys the kind of confidence in content that PBS seeks to insure and promote.

A Q&A With PBS

Dr. Burton also wrote to me asking a string of questions for PBS management about PBS's role. What follows are his questions, with answers supplied by Joseph A. Campbell, vice president of fundraising programming.

Q — Does the producer of the program pay the station to have his program aired? If so, what is the arrangement, and does it vary from station to station?

A — Producers do not pay the station to air a program. It would violate FCC regulations. PBS provides members stations with over 100 hours of pledge programming each year. Stations that wish to air this programming pay dues to receive the full slate of content that they schedule at their own discretion. There is no per-program fee for PBS content. There are other sources of pledge programming, such as American Public Television, Executive Program Service, among others. PBS does not determine the practices or procedures of other pledge program suppliers.

Q — Is there any overall PBS set of guidelines as to how such programs are purchased?

A — PBS member stations are independently owned and operated and are entitled to acquire programs that fit their needs.

Q — How is the money paid to the local stations actually dispersed? Does the program producer get a percentage, or does he/she donate the program to the station? In short, does the producer get any percentage of the pledge donation, either directly, or as part of the proceeds of the DVDs, books, etc. that are being sold?

A — Individual contributions are retained in their entirety by the individual stations to support local operations. As stated above, PBS provides members stations with over 100 hours of pledge programming each year. Stations that wish to air this programming pay dues to receive the full slate of content that they schedule at their own discretion. There is no per-program fee for PBS content. By donating to a PBS station, people become members. The stations use that revenue for their operations and membership dues to PBS.

As for the thank you gifts used with PBS programs, the items are provided by individual companies that sell the premiums directly to stations. The producer benefits from the sale of the premiums to stations. These shows are often negatively financed, so the proceeds go toward recouping the producer's investment.

Q — I realize that PBS has washed its hands of any responsibility for what programs can be aired on pledge night, but it is important for viewers and potential contributors to know whether PBS takes any advisory role in how programming is screened/funded and where the viewer's pledge dollar goes.

A — PBS stands behind all of the programs it provides for local stations. However, PBS is not the only source of programming for public television, so we simply cannot speak to programs that we do not distribute. It is important to remember that PBS is a membership organization, not a network of affiliates owned and operated by single corporation. Our mission is to provide content and technical services to member stations that are wholly independent, locally operated entities.

PBS's editorial standards are posted on our Web site and apply to all the content distributed by PBS. Public television is comprised of many independent organizations of which PBS in only one. Public broadcasting in this nation was designed to be locally autonomous and decentralized so that it could reflect a wide variety of voices and points of view and be responsive to the individual communities that it serves.

Here Are the Letters

Robert Burton's article "PBS's latest infomercial" (Salon, 12 March 2009) is right on the mark. When will PBS take some action against the use of the PBS name and logo for the promotion of pseudoscientific rubbish and quackery?

I have just read again your columns "The Lone Rangers" (30 January 2006), "Pledging Allegiance, or March Madness" (24 March 2006) and "Caution: That Program May Not Be From PBS" (15 May 2008). The last of these columns suggests that you are unaware that some local stations show the PBS logo continuously, in the lower-right corner of the screen display, during the broadcasting of infomercials. And when the local stations' hucksters ask for donations in return for the trashy books and other merchandise that the infomercials promote, the hucksters often refer explicitly to PBS and deliberately lead viewers to believe that the infomercials are PBS products. ("This marvelous program about using superfoods to boost your reading speed, enlarge your sex organs, and achieve spiritual wonderfulness is another example of the great programming that you get from PBS.")

You needn't tell me, Mr. Getler, that local stations aren't supposed to do these things. I know that. And I am telling you that they do it anyway. I have noted your explanations of the relations between PBS and its local affiliates, and I understand that PBS cannot dictate the local stations' programming. Even so, I think that PBS can do some things to mitigate the exploitation of its name, its logo, its constituency and its credibility by unscrupulous stations that will say or do anything to get money. At minimum, PBS can establish and publicize a Web page that will identify, and warn viewers against, the infomercials that unscrupulous affiliated stations are using.

There are other things that PBS can do, but a Web page would be a good, inexpensive beginning. I am sure that viewers who care about PBS, its reputation and its fortunes would help by quickly reporting to PBS the introduction of new infomercials into the program schedules of local PBS affiliates.

William J. Bennetta, Petaluma, CA

Here's Joseph Campbell's response: "The on-air logo used by stations during primetime programming is a co-branded 'bug' that includes both the local station's brand as well as the PBS symbol. This is a reflection of the local-national structure of PBS.

"Our stations are not affiliates of PBS, rather they are members. They work in partnership with PBS to bring their community a wide variety of programming. While much of this programming comes from PBS, not all of it does. This is not unlike a commercial network station airing a syndicated program while still using the network's identifiers.

"Each PBS station is a locally owned, locally operated entity. Nearly 40 years of experience, as well as our research, shows us that each station has its own distinctive identity in its community and that viewers understand that what they see on the air is the result of the station's independent decisions."

I resent the fact that PBS uses the infomercial of Dr. Mark Hyman during its fund-raising. He doesn't say anything different than other physicians about improving and maintaining good health (eat right, get regular exercise, reduce stress) until the section on needing to take supplements — obviously ones from which he receives a kickback.

During the same time segment of the fund raising which featured Dr. Hyman, a PBS spokesman talked about how PBS is trusted by 2.5x more people than trust commercial television — I lose my trust when it promotes someone like Dr. Hyman. Why not have a panel discussion of trusted physicians/researchers from the National Institutes of Health providing evidenced-based guidelines — even commercial television does that?

Fairway, KS

As a science teacher it is important for me to have reliable science-based resources to use in my classroom. I have, in the past, relied on creative and interesting PBS programming to inform and inspire my students. This is why I find it particularly disturbing that you are allowing non-science based programming, essentially infomercials promoting alternative based "therapies" and new age ideology, to run on your stations without so much as a disclaimer that these programs are not PBS productions. This issue was brought to my attention by Dr. Harriet Hall, a skeptical blogger and writer who understands, respects and uses the methods of science. Surely there is better programming that can be brought in to finance PBS. While this would be preferred, a disclaimer would be the minimum I would expect. Please do not continue to jeopardize the trust your audience has in your station.

G. Payne, Delta

The following was also sent to my local affiliate WOSU: I know that times are tough and that you are looking for ways to generate pledges while reducing costs but you have gone too far. The dramatic increase over the last couple years of infomercial programming has now put you on par with late night cable. Whatever you think the PBS brand stands for, please understand that every time you air these inane book/DVD hawking ramblings you erode the foundation of PBS.

Look at your own statement on standards.

Now look at last Saturday's programming: Ed Slott's Stay Rich for Life; Magnificent Mind at Any Age with Dr. Daniel Amen; Suze Orman: Women & Money; UltraMind Solution With Dr. Mark Hyman; You: Inner and Outer Beauty With Dr. Michael Roizen; Be Well Now! With Nancy Snyderman, MD

Not a single one of these 'programs' can even come close to meeting your set standards of Editorial Integrity and Quality. The 'medical' content is horrific — not a shred of meaningful, peer-reviewed science in any of it. PBS is better than this. PBS is NOVA, Charlie Rose, Masterpiece Theater, This Old House, Mr Rogers, Jim Lehrer, New Yankee, etc.

Paul Rothrock, Columbus, OH

A Matter of Integrity

Please stop airing the infomercials about "Doctors" and self-help gurus selling books about how (with the help of their book) life can be so much better. These seem to always be linked to fundraising. I will not financially support PBS as long as these "educational" programs are part of the program offerings. And yes, I am one of the minority of viewers who do financially support public broadcasting. I do believe this is a question of editorial integrity.

Lincoln, NE

Re: UltraMind Solution: Defeat Depression, Overcome Anxiety and Sharpen Your Mind with Mark Hyman, M.D.

I was shocked, shocked that the local PBS affiliate, KPBS, would run this piece of medical charlatanism at all and especially as a fundraiser. Anyone can cite unsupported antidotal evidence as a claim for great medical insight. Let him support his assertions with a peer-reviewed journal article, in a respected medical journal, before permitting him access to the public airwaves.

His medical recommendations are mainly benign but dangerous in implying that dementia, Alzheimer's and ADD can all be "cured" with the simplistic remedies that he is pushing with his book and DVD through appearances on PBS. What has the NIH, AMA, etc. to say about his simplistic remedies for these major maladies? I think he should be charged with medical malpractice or, at the very-least, with false and deceptive advertising in knowingly pushing his simplistic solutions to these major complex medical problems.

PBS sponsors many important medical-related contributions, such as WGBH's Nova series, but it totally destroys its credibility with these medical charlatans being presented along side high-quality medical-related programming, such as WGBH produces.

J. Dennis Bender, La Jolla, CA
Pat & Dennis Bender Medical Research Foundation

Well, we're in pledge season again. I read your 2006 comments about the deadly programming and complaints about some of the lecturers. I guess nothing has changed because we just had a rerun of Wayne Dyer. I found his lecture insulting, and wondered about all those rapt faces in the audience. I didn't know there were that many gullible people available.

I've never understood your pledge week options. Mostly they are programs very different from your usual programming. So what are you trying to do? Your regular viewers spend the week watching Netflix movies like we do, and those "new" viewers you attract will be greatly disappointed next week when Nova and Frontline come back on. Why can't the pledge drive be more of what you already do so well, minus the 20 minute "gimmie" breaks, times when you show off your best, rather than cheap stuff that you should be ashamed of?

Linda Carter, Toledo, OH

It's pledge drive time again, and once again, columnists and viewers are questioning the quality of some of the "self-help" gurus that stations are giving pulpits to. I know many of these programs are not "distributed by" PBS but they taint viewers' perceptions of the network.

New York, NY

I'm disturbed by PBS pushing Dr. Daniel Amen's infomercials on local PBS stations. You have not done your due diligence on his claims and methods. My concern arose when I saw my 87 year old mother watching the show and taking notes. She asked me where she could get the supplements he recommended. This is a prescription for disaster. see: http://www.quackwatch.org/06ResearchProjects/amen.html. Didn't Bernard Madoff teach us any lessons about blindly following without questioning?

Frank Genovese, Emerson, NJ

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