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PBS Ombudsman

The Ombudsman Column

Pledging Allegiance, or March Madness?

PBS, the public television service where I now work as the ombudsman, and The Washington Post newspaper, where I formerly did the same kind of work, have some important things in common. Both have informed, engaged audiences who care about news and information and how it is presented to them. Both are among the most respected disseminators of news and views about public affairs in the country. Both have a sense of community about them. They are like a glue that binds many people locally, in the case of The Post, and nationally in the case of PBS, around stories and programs that a core, yet diverse, group of readers and viewers have seen.

The big, actually huge, difference between them — aside from television versus print — is the word "public" in PBS. When viewers write to me at PBS they are not just viewers. They are viewers who know that some of their tax dollars go — via Congress, federal grants and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — to help support public television, and that some of their other money, in the form of contributions they make to their local stations, also helps keep PBS alive.

So, many PBS viewers feel they have more of a personal stake in what they see on their local stations than do readers of commercially-owned and run newspapers. And because it is public television, it is also viewed as special; different from what they get elsewhere, free of commercial interruptions, television with a mission to bring high-quality programming of all kinds to them, the public, not just stuff that is meant to grab high-ratings and advertising dollars.

All those things often combine to give many of those e-mails an extra, personal edge, beyond what I had come to expect at The Post.

Now comes another difference — "Pledge Period" — that uniquely PBS time of year (actually it comes three times a year) when all the local stations ask "viewers like you" to become members of their support group by pledging various sums of money. These fund drives are usually accompanied by some special programming shows distributed to PBS-affiliated local stations by the headquarters operation and are frequently linked to some giveaway; a book or videotape, a CD or DVD, or tickets to some event. In years past, a mug or baseball cap would do. Not any longer. The folks here who try to figure out these things feel that people nowadays seem to want programs and pledge-related gifts that may help them cope with one thing or another.

In Like a Lion

I mention all this because we are in a pledge period this month, and it has produced a version of March Madness in my inbox. Lots of people from all over the country writing — and by that I mean dozens, not thousands — complaining about some of the most high-profile pledge programs and questioning whether they are consistent with PBS's role, mission and image.

As I've said before, people write to me, for the most part, to complain, and there is no way to know whether those who write represent a much larger share of the audience. On the other hand, experience tells me that several dozen original letters about current pledge programs probably does represent the surfacing of a system-wide issue worthy of attention.

Aside from the continuing back and forth between both sides in the dispute over the forthcoming PBS broadcast of "The Armenian Genocide" and a follow-up panel discussion that will air April 17, the mail about the pledge shows was clearly the dominant single topic in the ombudsman's mailbag in the past 10 days or so.

A sampling of their letters follows at the end of the column in a follow-on segment headlined, "The Ombudsman's Mailbag." But here, in brief, is a summary of what viewers said.

Many wrote that they understood that PBS needed financial support from viewers but that the means of attracting it via these pledge periods had become counter-productive. "Dull and boring" were frequently used words. Some said they feared it would actually drive people anyway from the network. Viewers said they were angered by the content of some of these pledge shows, annoyed by their duration and repetitiveness or because their favorite scheduled shows were interrupted or cancelled. Others said they were driven simply to change channels, or worse, drop their commitment to PBS.

Several said the television service had become one of broadcasting "infomercials" and was engaging in constant begging for donations, one called them "begathons," without providing the intelligent, adult programming to accompany those pledge drives as it did in the past, as some viewers put it. The days of pledge-time concerts by the "three tenors" and galas featuring Luciano Pavarotti seem to be over. One said PBS had come to stand for "Please Buy Something." Many said that the network needed to come up with a better system for gathering viewer support. Some said these programs were not in keeping with PBS's public mission.

For Example

Many of the letters, probably a majority, made specific critical references to two of the leading pledge drive special programs distributed to the more than 300 local stations affiliated with PBS: One is the basic hour-long (it can extend for much more than an hour with the local station pledge breaks included) program of Robert Kiyosaki, the author of the "Rich Dad, Poor Dad" series of best-selling books on investment, with a heavy emphasis on real estate, and personal finance advice. The other involves presentations of up to four hours by psychologist and self-help guru Wayne Dyer, Ph.D., described as "public television's favorite teacher of transformational wisdom" and the author of "Your Erroneous Zones," "Pulling Your Own Strings" and "The Power of Intention."

Both men are categorized as motivational and inspirational speakers, both have large followings and have achieved substantial success. Kiyosaki's "Rich Man" book, for example, has sold more than four million copies since 1998, has spawned numerous additional titles, and has been on The New York Times best-seller list for advice and how-to books for some six years, according to Newsday. Both men have raised a lot of money for PBS stations.

So it's probably safe to assume that both of these pledge-associated programs are popular with lots of people and are successful at both raising money and solidifying, and perhaps expanding, the base of contributing local membership in PBS. On the other hand, there are these letters that I get, and the questions are whether they mean that something bigger is stirring out there or whether they simply reflect the normal amount of expressed disagreement one would expect. I don't know the answer but feel an obligation to summarize the complaints.

The ones about Kiyosaki were more numerous and seemed more passionate and more questioning of how such a program is reconciled with the perceived mission of PBS.

There were a couple of themes to the criticism. One was that the advice rendered was highly controversial and questionable in the eyes of these viewers, that it was nothing more than an infomercial meant to sell the author's books and lead viewers into a related real estate seminar with a significant entry fee. Several viewers felt it belittled people who take a more traditional course, painting them as "losers." Washington Post financial columnist Michelle Singletary, in a 2004 column, said she had been considering "Rich Dad" for her book club but dropped it when she heard the author describe, in a lecture, that anybody who aspires to work for someone else in a 9-to-5 job is a "loser." Others said that PBS was providing a sense of respectability to something that viewers felt was not up to public television's reputation.

The letters critical of Dyer are harder to summarize and are best captured by the letters in the mailbag that follows this column. In general, however, they reveal mostly a trend that those viewers who wrote find disturbing; a sense that PBS might be seen as lending its prestige to Dyer's spiritual views and aligning itself with his teachings.

Four Million Contributors

I've been in this job for a little more than four months now, but have been watching PBS for many, many years, and I enjoy, and am grateful for, many of its offerings. I've been exposed to dozens of pledge drives over the years, understand the need for them and, frankly, never thought twice about them, at least until now. In the past, they didn't bother me and I still send in an annual contribution to my local station, as I have been doing for years.

Here's some additional background information. According to the most recent revenue report available online, dealing with fiscal year 2003, nearly four million individuals support public television nationwide. That may make PBS the most, or certainly among the most, publicly supported institutions in the country in terms of the number of people contributing. Those individual contributions added up to more than $365 million. The pledge drives are the most important component of this fund-raising, accounting for about 40 percent of the dollars and two-thirds of the membership nationwide.

So the pledge drives are a big deal, especially to the local stations. PBS commissions and distributes many shows for use during pledge period. Officially, there are three national drives, the most recent ones taking place last August and December and during this month. Officially, they are supposed to be aired on a total of 34 days a year, but, like everything else, the decisions are made by local stations and officials here say the average is probably closer to 60 days. What this means is that these programs, including the ones featuring Kiyosaki and Dyer, are paying off for local station managers in terms of generating members and contributions.

The gamble, it seems to me, is in figuring out if some of these current programs, as the mailbag suggests from a narrow slice of viewers, may actually be turning a larger slice off and away from PBS, and where is the line beyond which an important segment becomes alienated. That's what makes these letters interesting, in my view.

The Ombudsman's Mailbag

Here's a sampling of letters on the subject of this week's column.

On Pledge Week

The constant "infomercial" type programming on Houston PBS has driven me to remove the station from my remote. In my opinion, the constant begging for donations while providing no adult programming is as annoying and tiresome to those who can afford to donate as well to those who cannot, but still appreciate the intelligent programming which was available, say 5 years ago.

Houston, TX

PBS needs to change its name! My suggestion is to call PBS the "Please Buy Something" network.

I understand that since government funding has been changed that the stations need to raise funds to stay on the air. But there has to be a limit! It seems that every other program is selling something to raise money or we are in the midst of another fund raising. I know it is costly to operate PBS, but you have to come up with some way to fund the network or you will be running non-stop membership drives.

Grand Rapids, MI

I think it is time for PSB to rethink its fund raising process. Last evening we tuned into "This Land is Your Land," a special on the history of folk music in the US. This special event was a debacle. The first 20 minutes were spent by the local affiliate asking for donations. Then there was 10 minutes of music. This pattern was repeated every 30 minutes. In addition, the performers were asked to give statements during their music about how important giving money to PBS was. The fundraising ruined this event as a concert although I'm not sure how the program ended because I turned it off after three cycles of fundraising propaganda.

Roger Frank, Springville, NY

I have been a member almost from day one and donate whatever I can afford when I can afford it, but I have grown to resent the fund raising segments as whiney, begging sessions that are boring . . .

Toms River, NJ

Could you people be any more boring? I like your programming but nothing turns me off faster than those pledge drives that go on and on and on in relentless banter. Make them shorter. Make them more interesting — before I forget what I was watching or why I tuned in.

RG Whyte, Duncan, NU

I just spent the past 2-1/2 hrs. letting PBS insult my intelligence. For a public service that prides itself on raising the educational level of all people, your 'BEGATHONS' that you foist upon us twice a year are an abomination of your stated mission. If income is so important, with today's technology why don't your people come up with someway to make PBS a subscription TV network. Set a fee for one month, 1/2 year, or year subscription — whatever — those that pay get to see, those that don't don't.

Martin Stein, Dayton, OH

When these women interrupt my son's favorite show to start begging for money, not only does he get upset, but it makes me just turn the channel, or better yet, turn the TV off! This constant interrupting to beg for money is counter-productive in my opinion. I cannot imagine too many people continuing to watch a channel when all you hear is nagging women. There has to be a better way to collect money for this station. I might actually be willing to give something if I knew that it meant letting my son see his program all the way through! Please tell me there is a way to change this policy! If it continues in this manner, they may actually lose viewers, not gain.

Williamsport, PA

I am SO turned off by the poor programming during this last extended pledge drive that I fear I will never support PBS again. While I understand your need to raise funds . . . I feel you are being just a tad bit excessive and it is a real turn off to someone who has pledged faithfully for years. I expect excellence in viewing from PBS. This has been a week of one disappointment after another.

Lyndon Station, WI

PBS is a powerhouse of possibility. You should exercise your huge possibilities, not bore people to death.

Little Falls, NY

Over the past many years the PBS affiliate in Madison, Wisconsin has held an annual on-the-air auction to raise funds. For one week each year this auction displaces the NewsHour which is not broadcast for the week. At other times during the year the station conducts on-air fundraising during all programs. During the NewsHour time, the fundraisers refer to the NewsHour as "The most important hour on television."

Well, is it? The history actually shows that the 5 hours of auction week are more important if the direct hawking of merchandise, however noble the motives, is allowed to pre-empt ongoing world developments. Everything else that is pre-empted by the week long auction could be rescheduled or is already a repeat from an earlier broadcast. Surely, there would be at least a minimum requirement for some truth in the fundraising so that the NewsHour could be properly described as the "Sixth most important hour."

Baraboo, WI

On Wayne Dyer

Many years ago I was a fan of Dr. Wayne Dyer and thought his book "Your Erroneous Zones" was one of the best of the genre. In particular, I liked his message, that we are all responsible for our own situation in life. Unfortunately, he changed his theories forever-after in his next books. Dyer's message now, as stated endlessly on PBS reruns, is that we must tune in to our "source." And if we just want whatever material items we happen to crave badly enough, that source will deliver them to us. Please listen to the man. He is NOT saying we can have what we want if we work hard enough for it. The message is unambiguous. Tune in to your source, and meditate a lot, and you will get that new car, house, or whatever. How is PBS dealing with the poor folks who complain that they have wished and wished and wished, and their "source" continues to leave their garage empty? PBS needs to be a beacon of truth. Can't you guys find legitimate psychologists and scientists to team up with to sell these packages??

Robert Harris, St. Petersburg, FL

I've always considered myself a member of the "core" audience for public broadcasting, and as such, I recoil in horror at the fundraising programs embraced by the PBS affiliates in the Carolinas. Dr. Wayne Dyer must be laughing all the way to the bank. That he can speak for hours in platitudes and say nothing of substance is annoying enough; that he is lining his pockets in the process (I assume he's getting paid) is doubly offensive.

Reid Spencer, Davidson, NC

I am writing to express my concern over programming content during the December Pledge Drive fundraising event held by my local PBS affiliate KHUT in Houston. The station was aggressively promoting a program titled "Dr. Wayne Dyer: The Power of Intention" that included a "gift" of some of Dr. Dyer's work for a pledge of support for the station. This program was overtly religious as Dr. Dyer presented the spiritual foundations of his writings and touted its message during a taped event shown during the program. Dr. Dyer was also interviewed by local hosts in the local studio between program segments. The local hosts praised the "truth" in Dr. Dyer's writings, "Amen'ed" his philosophical statements and invoked the name of God during the program. A little research yielded information about Dr. Dyer's generous support of PBS as-well-as his religious viewers. I am deeply disturbed that PBS would align themselves so closely with Dr. Dyer and his teachings. I am very disappointed that public funding is being used to promote this religion. I know PBS is striving to provide objectivity and balance in its public affairs programming. However, I feel that promotion of Dr. Dyer by PBS is in direction opposition to this goal. This program was presented with no caveat as to its religious content. While Dr. Dyer's message is one of inclusiveness toward all of humanity, I personally reject his philosophy. I do not wish to support Dr. Dyer's efforts indirectly with my tax dollars. PBS is derelict in its duty of public services in promoting this material. I respectfully ask that you review the decisions to offer this type of programming and refrain from it in the future.

Stephen Burrow, Houston, TX

I was listening to Wayne Dyer on a long program he was giving on inspiration and motivating people to some "higher" purpose in living their lives and was struck by how closely his sermons were a promotion of his particular religious views. Unlike most PBS programming there was no rebuttal to the many ideas he was espousing. It was as if his views were sanctioned as "Gospel" by PBS. This blessing by PBS was reinforced by the network offering his DVD and CD's as gift for pledging. Basically he is espousing a faith based teaching, which would be fine if this were a religious program on a religious network. But PBS I can imagine never was meant to be a sponsor of any religious view, at least not without some disclaimer. Nor can I imagine that PBS would actually promote a faith based teaching by disseminating the teachings by DVD's and CD's as if it these beliefs were someone sanctioned as TRUE by PBS. At the very least one would think there would be a critical examination by various scholars examining the validity of Dyer's arguments.

John Lavelle, Avon Lake, OH

I am really appalled at your labeling Dr. Wayne Dyer "America's foremost spiritual guide & mentor." Is Dr. Dyer aware you are calling him such? It's presumptuously arrogant of you to do so, let alone for anyone to claim such for themselves. Is he America's pope? Has he replaced God? Shame on PBS!

Paul Bird, Huntington, WV

I am a long time supporter of PBS, and had supported my local PBS station (KVIE 6, Sacramento, CA.) for years. Unfortunately, I have had to withdraw my support because I think they are doing something inappropriate for a publicly funded organization.

The issue that confused me and that I cannot support is in the nature of some of their programming. They have consistently (over the last several years) been airing programming that is essentially religious in nature, or in large part is promoting a particular religious view. I have no issue with examining religious issues, but they have crossed over the line between examining and exploring a religious concept or tradition, to becoming a proponent of a specific one. All the objectionable programming they have promoted has been roughly in the "New Age" spiritual vein. I won't make a complete list or anything, but the latest one that I recently saw part of was Dr. Wayne Dyer: The Power of Intention.

Paul Greaves, Granite Bay, CA

On Robert Kiyosaki

I was appalled watching "Rich Dad, Poor Dad" on a local PBS affiliate tonight. The principal speaker, Robert Kiyosaki, was offering highly controversial and questionable financial advice. His recommendations include avoiding conventional diversified investments (especially stock and bond funds) and instead buying only real estate. The format was one of an inspirational seminar where Kiyosaki criticizes time-honored investment advice as for losers and his approach as the road to riches. At pledge breaks, he offers his books and other media, which is I wouldn't be surprised were his actual road to riches. It would not be unusual to see such a program as a late-night infomercial. But for PBS to air this program and offer his material with donations gives this show an air of respectability that is completely unexpected. At best, PBS is showing a very unbalanced presentation that would be judged by most economists as rubbish and that directly benefits its speaker financially. At worst, PBS, by lending its reputation for integrity and accuracy to this program, is duping gullible listeners into following his advice and possibly leading them to financial ruin.

Michael Riley, New York, NY

This program lacked content — to say the least. Neither was there any financial planning or retirement advice given by Mr. Kiyosaki; he seemed to take pleasure in belittling people who go to college to get a degree. It also seemed like Mr. Kiyosaki was more interested in using the as a forum to pitch his products. I would have expected PBS to have done their due diligence and reviewed the content for worthiness before airing it. After sitting through 90 minutes, I felt like I was watching an infomercial and it reflects rather poorly on what PBS stands for.

Coppell, TX

I'm not sure this is the proper avenue for these remarks, however, I felt a need to comment on a recent PBS fundraising program. The featured speaker was Robert Kiosaki, telling viewers how to get rich. Basically, it was through investment, and the using of the productivity of others. He never mentions what would happen if everyone were investors, and there were no people willing (or in his view, stupid enough,) to actually do the WORK of creating real wealth of goods. If there are only landlords, then who will actually farm, build the houses, the nails that make them, etc. I found the whole proposal, selfish, not helpful for creating a just, and renewable social order in a world where the planet "belongs" to all. I was disappointed to have PBS promoting this kind of thinking, with no exploration of the real consequences if all followed it.

Laurie W. Alt, East Haddam, CT

I was about to make a donation to PBS as I love the quality of programs offered. I will not donate after, by accident, I saw a broadcast of the program "Rich Dad, Poor Dad." I was unpleasantly surprised that PBS is lowering its standard to broadcast this type of scam artist. This is worst program ever and I hope it will be discontinued soon. This is viewer betrayal in the worst sense.

Laguna Hillas, CA

The show that Robert Kiyosaki is airing on KCET and other PBS stations around Southern California is indeed an Info-commercial. As far as I could understand watching the program he is basically pumping people up to invest in real estate. This type of programming belongs on the financial channel or a REAL info-commercial, not PBS. To get more answers you must go to a paid seminar he is co-hosting. This in my view is a conflict, since he is selling his book and indirectly pushing the seminar on PBS.

I don't think it is any public television station's responsibility to promote a certain type of investing. Anybody living in Southern California now knows that the real estate market is flatting out and has peaked. Why than is KCET letting this guy promote real estate flipping! People will get hurt and I think KCET knows that. KCET is thinking with their checkbook, which is fine, as long as they put up a disclaimer for the viewer. Anybody on TV has a captive audience. To have someone on PBS gives them added credibility to hawk their services and promote their name.

Los Alamitos, CA

I find your fundraiser, Teach To Be Rich, patently offensive, disgustingly insensitive, and profoundly ignorant. PBS couldn't possibly get any further from the notion of a "Public" benefit. Too many of your programs are by, for and at the whim of the wealthy, and you are promoting an ideology of blame the victim. i.e., if only you'd listen to our "Teach To Be Rich" advice then you too would be wealthy. Everyone could be wealthy! PBS is casting its lot with the arrogance of privilege. I'm sorry for the masses of people who swallow your self-serving crap. You are making it enormously more difficult to create a world of justice and fairness.

Tom Flittie, Amherst, MA

I was looking forward to last night's KCET broadcast of the "Rich Dad, Poor Dad" lecture. I trusted that it would be a great learning experience like Suze Orman or Wayne Dyer had been when I watched captivated by what they had to say. Instead of it being educational, it was a shameless ad for a local expo and more than half of the 2 hours was station breaks to solicit donations and plug the expo they'd give you tickets for if you joined KCET. It was like an infomercial trying to hook you into attending the expo to learn more since there was so little content in the actual program. I don't think I've ever felt 2 hours of attention given to PBS had ever been such a waste of time. It was worse than any mainstream channel's advertising. I certainly hope this is not going to be the start of a new trend on PBS.

Judith Gottesman, Santa Monica, CA

For some time now I, and my wife, have been dismayed by the insidious take-over of PBS by charlatans selling everything from skin treatments to the pathway to God by self promoting saviors. It seemed to start with Suze Orman, and moved to "Rich Dad, Poor Dad" clown and is culminating with Dr.?enlightenment (who's name escapes me), all well stocked with books, tapes and seminars on convenient CD packages. Please, save the postage and phone calls asking for money; it will go to more worthy causes.

Ralph Davis, Tiburon, CA

Thanks for your service with PBS. My first letter to you, unfortunately, is a complaint. The infomercial "Rich Dad, Poor Dad" is a shame. Why not entitle it: "Public Service Breeds Idiots: Make As Much Money as You Can While Screwing Your Neighbors"? Please reconsider this silly program, for it is all about wealth inequity and a fend-for-yourself ideology that fits nicely into a conservative, frontier economy. Is this what PBS is about?

Cary, IL

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