Promotion, Promotion, Promotion

Posted by Michael Getler on

Just like location is a cornerstone of real estate, promotion is at least one of the cornerstones of today’s exploding media world. That linkage came to mind this week when I became aware of two events that involved PBS but of which very few, if any, viewers would have been aware.

Neither one constitutes some major breach of the rules. Indeed, the actions have been vetted internally and approved. Yet aspects of both were bothersome to me, personally, and so I thought I’d take advantage of this space to air them.

First There Is that ‘House of Cards’

The first event I’m calling attention to involved a cameo appearance by PBS NewsHour co-anchor Gwen Ifill in an episode of the new season of the hugely popular Netflix series “House of Cards,” which was released earlier this month. Ifill, not surprisingly, plays her part very convincingly. She appears in a studio setting, with the PBS NewsHour logo on the bottom of the screen, moderating a sit-down debate featuring the main characters in the series – the fictional president and first lady – along with his rival, the Republican nominee, and a retired general.

I should say right off the bat that Ifill is not alone. CNN stars Wolf Blitzer and John King also play cameo roles in the series and, I’ve since learned, Charlie Rose and the PBS logo appear in the new “Batman v Superman” movie. A dozen other TV personalities from cable and broadcast networks have also made cameo appearances on "Cards" in recent years.

I didn’t know any of this, mostly because I didn't have a Netflix subscription, although I’ve now got one so I could see the episode with Ifill. I actually first learned about this episode with Ifill when I happened upon a Huffington Post article headlined “Shamelessly Selling Themselves: When the Media Is Its Own Worst Enemy.” About the same time, I heard from what I know to be a “reliable source” that there was some concern about this within the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the non-profit group that is the steward for whatever funds are appropriated by Congress for public broadcasting on TV and radio. I’ll get back to that.

Go for It

I asked PBS about the approval process for both Ifill’s appearance and the use of the logo. Here is what a spokesperson said: “The PBS NewsHour team was given the opportunity to review the script in advance and worked directly with House of Cards producers on the use of the logo during the scene. NewsHour let PBS know about the request so we could weigh in. Public figures often portray themselves in television and movies and PBS was comfortable with NewsHour’s participation in the series. In a similar instance, Charlie Rose will be seen in the film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which debuts in theaters [Friday]. The scene is an interview between Charlie Rose and U.S. Senator Finch, played by Holly Hunter. The PBS logo is present in lower third of the screen. Charlie Rose Productions worked with Warner Bros Pictures on scene and script review, and on logo placement. PBS vetted this arrangement.”

PBS to Staffers: ‘Tune In’

So everything seems cool internally here at PBS. Indeed, an internal staff newsletter, the “Scoop,” linked to an announcement that told staffers to “tune in” and explained that this was all part of a “brand strategy.”

Here is what the PBS in-house announcement said, in part, about “House of Cards” and Ifill’s role: “The timely launch of this season is in the midst of the current election landscape.  The debate scenes will appear in episode 412 of the 13 episode series. Be sure to tune in! … PBS' Brand Strategy team in coordination with NewsHour and production reviewed and approved the show's request for integration into the series. As part of its regular practice, Brand Strategy often receives requests from production companies for logo use and/or other storyline integrations wherein PBS is mentioned or portrayed. Each entertainment opportunity presents unique brand exposure and is fully vetted and reviewed by our brand team before a license agreement is granted.”

CPB’s ‘Concern’

I did get back to the CPB with what I had heard and an official there would only say: “We are concerned that a blurring of the line between fact and fiction undermines the public media brand, which is the gold standard for journalism.”

Just before my posting time today, I also got this from Jeff Tucker, director of content services at Idaho public television: “I was just talking with a viewer this morning who mentioned the fact that Gwen Ifill played herself on the PBS NewsHour set in the most recent season of House of Cards. For the record, I watch the series and think it’s dark and scary and, like hot sauce, you just have to keep eating it! But it’s a series that intentionally tries to blur the line between fiction and non-fiction and in this day and age I really wonder if some folks, of course not PBS viewers, can tell the difference. I just read the new Trust brochure that lists PBS as the most trusted news source. Why would she or anyone think it would be to her or our advantage to take on this role as a real and trusted news person and be placed within a fictional and dark series about our government?”

My Thoughts on This

First, there is no crime here. Everything had the stamp of approval and seems to have been handled properly.

But what bothers me is this: High-profile TV reporters and anchors are already celebrities. Ifill and her co-anchor, Judy Woodruff are, uniquely, the faces of PBS and certainly among the most well-known of all TV news personalities. And all of those personalities are instantly recognized, unlike newspaper reporters or editors, for example. Yet they are all journalists. And journalists, at least in my view, should not seek or allow expanding of that celebrity into certain other roles that can diminish, or perceive to diminish, the vital role they play as hopefully non-partisan reporters of news, facts and analysis, and that also plays a crucial, central role in our system of checks and balances within a system that constitutionally protects them.

That may seem corny and naïve in today’s media environment, but the erosion of those fundamentals, which is widespread, troubles me a lot. And just to keep the PBS angle part of this, PBS is special; it is different from cable or commercial broadcast operations. So should they be holier than thou? I would argue yes, despite brand strategies and ratings growth.

Which Brings Me to the Second ‘Branding’ Event

Last month, PBS’s “Independent Lens” series broadcast a powerful film titled “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.” It was a big hit, got good reviews and the highest-ever ratings for Independent Lens and lots of social media buzz. I wrote about it at the time, including some critical assessments of some aspects.

What caught my eye just this week was a lengthy article in Current, the trade news publication for public broadcasting, laying out the “engagement strategy knitted from screenings, fundraising, celebrity tweets [and] paid ads” that led to drawing a “record audience” to Independent Lens.

Near the top of the story, reporter Henry Schneider wrote: “In its television premiere, the documentary received a 1.2 rating in Nielsen Overnight Metered Markets, the highest ever for an Independent Lens film. It also became the most-streamed Independent Lens film online. And the film was among Twitter’s trending topics for five hours on premiere night, with influential African-Americans such as Russell Simmons, John Legend, Kerry Washington, Questlove and MC Hammer tweeting about the film.”

Then, farther along in the story, there is this paragraph. The references to Firelight and Childress in the paragraph below refer to Firelight Media, the film production company, and Sonya Childress, Firelight’s director of community engagement.

Here's the paragraph: “One influencer Firelight reached through Kickstarter, dream hampton, had connections to numerous African-American celebrities. The filmmakers hired hampton, an African-American cultural critic, writer and filmmaker, to engage high-profile celebrities to tweet about the film. Firelight wrote around 70 tweets for celebrities to tweet on the night of the broadcast, Childress said.”

My Questions

Late Thursday afternoon, I wrote to Marie Nelson, PBS’s vice president of news and public affairs, who worked with producers to develop the engagement strategy, and asked if she could send me all of the tweets that Hampton wrote for others. I also asked if she would explain to me why it is ethical to hire someone to write tweets for celebrities to tweet about a program (which they may or may not have seen) and why is it not misleading viewers. I asked if it was also misleading to then use those celebrity tweets to substantiate, in part, how successful the audience-engagement strategy was.

That was quite a load to dump on Nelson on what turned out to be very short notice, for which I apologize. She also made an effort to get a brief response from the producers and PBS on what was late in the day on Good Friday and on the eve of the Easter weekend when a lot of people are away.

Here is PBS's response: “The producers of BLACK PANTHERS hired a consultant to ask social media influencers, that is, individuals who have a significant social media following, to tweet about the film. The consultant offered sample tweets, which were tune-in information or factual statements about the Black Panthers movement. These samples were suggestions that individuals could use, adapt or not use at all. While the producer did pay a fee to the consultant, whose role was similar to that of a publicist, no compensation was offered to the influencers.”

A Final Word, for Now

There may be more to say about this later on but I'm no less bothered about these "branding" or "audience engagement" strategies than I was at the start, at least as they apply to public broadcasting and the ways it is supposed to be different from cable or commercial broadcast outlets.

Posted on March 25, 2016 at 4:33 p.m.

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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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