August Escape? Not from Pledge

Posted by Michael gelter on
Four times a year, no matter where they live, PBS viewers can count on being exposed to a pledge drive, usually of one or two weeks duration. These drives are part of the complex funding model that the non-profit PBS and its member stations — unlike, say, the BBC in Britain — are stuck with. The mix includes: contributions to stations from “viewers like you,” grants from foundations, corporate sponsorships, dues from member stations to PBS, video sales, funds authorized by state and local governments, colleges and Congress (about 15% of public television's overall budget, most of which goes to stations), and a large number of pledge drives.
First, Some Background
It is not surprising that the member stations, of which there are more than 350, depend heavily on these drives to help fund their operations and that the programs they choose bring in much needed revenue from viewers. Sometimes you get a tote bag or coffee mug for your $50 or $100 contribution. But sometimes these pledge programs are specials that run 90 minutes and feature doctors, spiritualists, financial advisors, and others, and they sell viewers video-package follow-ups for sometimes hundreds of dollars. The programs that keep coming back obviously are popular with the local audiences and station managers. But some are also very controversial for some viewers.
I have written about this many times over the years because people write to me to complain. If you search the ombudsman's archive on this page for the word "pledge," you’ll find some 70 entries. There is nothing like an avalanche of complaints each time, usually just a handful. But there is enough, over time, to make clear that — whatever the financial benefits and however popular with many people — some of these pledge programs put a dent in PBS credibility and are not what some viewers believe public television is meant to represent.
Over the years, viewers have spread their fire over many targets, but the enduring ones have been a couple of medical doctors, Dr. Mark Hyman and Dr. Daniel Amen, and, certainly the king of controversy as far as my inbox goes, Dr. Wayne Dyer, a Ph.D. who appears as a “self-development specialist,” not a medical doctor. This month, some viewers wrote to complain about another doctor, David Perlmutter, MD, and his program, “Brainchange,” which has been or will be aired, apparently, by more than 100 PBS member stations around the country.
Now Hear This!
A very important point, however, is that the pledge specials featuring doctors Hyman, Amen and Perlmutter are not distributed by PBS. Rather, all three are distributed by Executive Program Services, another of the handful of other film suppliers licensed to distribute programming to public broadcasters. As I have also written many times, PBS member stations are all independent and can air whatever they choose.
Another important point, in my view and as I wrote first in 2009, “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.”
But that still does not happen, hence PBS gets often criticized among at least some viewers for broadcasts which it has nothing to do with. Here, for example, is Dr. Perlmutter’s Facebook page and another article listing “110+ PBS Stations Airing Grain Brain.”
I have not tried to judge, personally, the medical advice being offered on these pledge specials. Rather, I’ve chosen to air disputes about them. But to repeat, it escapes me that PBS — and by extension, its member stations — fail to take more adequate, apparent and mandatory measures to make clear to viewers what is, and is not, a PBS-distributed program.
Dyer is distributed by PBS and I have also written about his program many times and have said it was my “sense” that aspects of his approach had violated the “non-sectarian” segment of PBS editorial guidelines, a stance that PBS rejected.
Finally, and more broadly, it seems to me that a theme that has come through in many of the critical letters about certain kinds of pledge-drive material over the years is that PBS represents a certain standard, a very high one, for its viewers and that its pledge programming too often seems not in keeping with that standard and that an understandable need for funds too often appears like hucksterism.
Letters and a Response
What follows are some of the recent letters dealing with this issue. Those are followed by a response from Joseph A. Campbell, PBS vice-president for fundraising programming. Over the years, Campbell has provided many responses to viewers and to the ombudsman.
I am 83 years old and have mild dementia onset. I was very impressed by Dr. David Perlmutter's appearance on PBS in June, and made a $120 contribution to receive his book and other material. I immediately started to follow his suggestions, but they have had very little (if any) effect on my dementia. I was very surprised to see Dr. Joel Furman on PBS with a very different approach to dementia. Many of his suggestions were contrary to Dr. Perlmutter's. I did some research on the web, and found a large number of very negative reviews of Dr. Perlmutter's book. An article in "The Atlantic" had detailed (mostly negative) reviews of Perlmutter's claims. The appearance of both Perlmutter and Furman on PBS with a solicitation of contributions offering information on both was very upsetting. I had always viewed PBS as a great source of reliable information, but I am now very reluctant to believe such information on PBS. I am also upset by my trust in PBS which fostered my giving my contribution. I suggest that in the future, PBS should be more diligent when offering material in return for contributions. It would be interesting to get Perlmutter and Furman together on PBS to debate the views (but this will never happen!!!).
Madisonville, TN
~ ~ ~
I am puzzled by the disconnect I see between 'programming' and 'fundraising.' The feature shows on PBS, in my perception, usually maintain a rather high level of intellectual integrity. The fund raising productions, however, are of an entirely different matter.
The presentation of Dr. David Perlmutter this evening [Aug. 16] on a local station, pitching himself as an irreproachable expert on "brain health" is mind boggling. Why your leadership would allow Dr. Perlmutter to use PBS as an uncritical platform from which to sell his junk science is unfathomable to me. Dr. Perlmutter makes a mockery of intellectual integrity with his declaration that, for example, "gluten sensitivity" is the etiology to which 99% of cases of depression may be attributed (using his claimed figures on the prevalence of "severe gluten sensitivity" [30%] and relative risk of "gluten sensitivity" in depression [3.3]). Dr. Perlmutter is very rich, I would imagine, at the expense — to some degree — of the credibility of PBS.
Even worse, in my personal view, are the claims of Dr. Wayne Dyer, who is permitted to use PBS as a forum for touting his self-proclaimed spiritual ascendancy. Dr. Dyer's junk wisdom is even more pernicious than Dr. Perlmutter's scientifically specious junk health tips.
Your fund raising program devoted to the works of Burt Bacharach recently inspired me to make a small contribution. The schlock spouted by Dr. Perlmutter makes me wonder if I shouldn't have sent that money elsewhere. I appreciate your having taken the time to read my remarks.
James Bromberg, Albuquerque, NM
~ ~ ~
Let me begin by saying I modestly support PBS and my local station OETA. Does this give a right to complain? Probably not. I watch PBS a lot. My favorites are Frontline and Masterpiece. August fest is appalling. Shows such as Dr. Fuhrman's End Dieting, Suze Orman's Financial Solutions, Healing A.D.D., Joy Bauer's Food Remedies, Dr. Wayne Dyer, 30 Days to a Younger Heart, Heal Yourself, Brainchange, The Omni Health Revolution, The Blood Sugar Solution and probably some others are INFOMERCIALS and belong on a different show. UNLESS of course these people are paying PBS millions and millions of dollars to be included in August fest. Are they paying anything and how much? Let's get rid of these kinds of shows. If I want this kind of information I can pay $50 and lunch at Holiday Inn or watch Infomercials on other channels. Thank you for your time.
Karen Coerver, Oklahoma City, OK
~ ~ ~
The programming on WNET during your fund-raising drive is beyond ludicrous. Who in the name of heaven is interested in three hours of reggae bands turned down by Ed Sullivan? We are members of WNET and are totally embarrassed by this absolutely absurd, octogenarian programming. Unless you are trying to appeal to legacy viewers, the entire period is a total loss.
Gary Rodgers, Brooklyn, NY
~ ~ ~
I am an enthusiastic and grateful supporter of PBS. However, the endless chatter of the representatives during the Pledge sessions is almost unendurable. I continue to pledge NOT because of the verbiage but in spite of it. Please consider how this important process might be done differently. There must be an approach more appealing and, I imagine, more productive. Thank you for giving this request serious consideration.
Wendell Wright, Roanoke, VA
~ ~ ~
I'm not sure if you're the appropriate person to receive this, but I've tried writing to my local station (several times) and they keep telling me that they show what PBS provides. I can't find anyone, except for you, at PBS to contact. I'm getting sick and tired of my local PBS station (WHYY in Wilmington/Philadelphia) broadcasting endless reruns of self-help gurus preaching the obvious to rapt studio audiences. If one wants to get rich one should spend less and save more. If one wants to lose weight one should eat less and exercise more. These are hardly profound secrets of the universe.
I'm an opera fan and Philadelphia is a city chock full of opera fans but our local station either doesn't broadcast the "Great Performances" telecasts of the Metropolitan Opera or relegates them to the wee hours of the morning on their secondary, standard definition, channel. Meanwhile the HD channel is occupied with yet another rerun of one of those self-help gurus, so that any of their fans who feel they need a refresher lecture can watch it in HD. Recently I even caught one of those snake-oil salesmen pitching a multi-disc set of his lectures that one could order from PBS.
I gather that things are in almost as sorry a state on other PBS stations across the country, although WNET in New York still seems to have a good lineup of shows. Remember Newton Minow's "Vast Wasteland" speech? Well the wasteland is spreading to PBS. I once thought of PBS as a refuge where I could expect quality programming. Now I consider myself lucky if I get half a dozen quality shows in any given week. Please don't let this happen to PBS.
Barbara Wertz, Sewell, NJ
PBS’s Joseph A. Campbell Responds
Thanks for sharing the comments from our viewers. I always enjoy reading them and they are testament to the fact that we have a thoughtful, engaged audience. The program featuring Dr. Perlmutter is not distributed by PBS but by another distribution company that provides programs for local stations. As you know, stations are free to acquire programs from a variety of sources, not just PBS.
So while I can't speak specifically to the claims made in Dr. Perlmutter's show, I can talk about the recent program from Dr. Joel Fuhrman called "End Dieting Forever,” which is the third program we have distributed from Dr. Fuhrman. Before we agreed to distribute it, we carefully reviewed the information in the program and found independent studies that verified those claims. Many of those studies are cited by Dr. Fuhrman or are displayed in the lower third of the screen. Each program begins with a notice that that urges viewers to talk to their doctor before implementing any advice presented in our programming.
Dr. Wayne Dyer has been a staple on PBS for many years and his programs have been very popular with viewers across the country. His inspirational and aspirational messages have been warmly received by many people. Like the rest of the PBS schedule, we try to provide a varied schedule of programming, knowing that viewers will make viewing selections based on their own tastes and interests.  In this way we strive to serve all Americans with programming on subjects they are interested in.
We continue to actively review programs from the on-going schedule to identify programs with the potential to generate financial support. We've been very pleased with the results from "The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross" and hope to find more inspirational programs like it for future membership campaigns. I hope this answers the viewer questions and gives them some insight into our varied schedule. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to respond.
Posted on Aug. 21, 2014 at 2:43 p.m.

Search Ombudsman Archive

As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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