Haigs chats with executives seen as 30-minute commercial
It can be tough to get a commercial on public TV in the guise of an underwriting credit. But it's easier, at some stations, if you call it a program.
WNYC's public radio series On the Media, distributed by NPR, reported Feb. 23  that "what amounts to a 30-minute commercial may well be running on a public TV station near you." The report by co-host Bob Garfield describes Alexander Haig's World Business Review, hosted by the onetime general and secretary of state.
WBR offers chats between Haig and executives of mostly little-known companies about their products and services. In an on-screen disclosure, the producers, Multi Media Productions "USA" Inc., acknowledge that episode's participants help pay for production costs.
In some cities, the transaction is extended with payments to public TV stations that run the programs. A company called the Alliance for Educational Technology, which shares Multi Media's Boca Raton, Fla., office suite, pays underwriting fees to a number of public TV stations. Multi Media says the Alliance is its advisory board, headed by Haig, as well as its distributor.
Though the on-screen disclosure may keep the producers out of trouble with the FCC's sponsorship ID rules, the guests' payments to Boca Raton and Boca's payments to some stations may violate the commission's rule forbidding noncommercial stations from airing paid promotional material for-profit companies, according to communications attorneys.
WBR is "an educational tool ... not a 30-second commercial," wrote Thomas Clynes, c.e.o. of Multi Media in reply to Current's questions last week. "NPR seems to be trying to discredit the concept of corporations underwriting a series and also having their executive appear on one of the shows of the series." The technique, he adds, "is simply a more creative way to fund a series" and pubcasters should be more flexible in applying their rules.
The producers maintain editorial control, he contends.
WBR is not a PBS or APT program. It's entered into the PBS satellite system by the independent pubcaster WNVT/WNVC (now called MHz Networks) in Fairfax, Va., and the Virginians neither take responsibility for the content nor broadcast the show locally. Relatively few public TV stations do.
Though the producers claim a potential audience of "approximately 50 million" households, it was scheduled on only 48 of the more than 350 public TV transmitters in the past nine months, according to PubTV Online, a national carriage and ratings service. Those transmitters are located in 40 markets, including nine of the top 20. Multi Media claims further distribution on local cable channels, by videocassette in university libraries and by satellite in the PBS Business & Technology Channel (no longer related to PBS).
At some stations that have carried the show, execs tell Current they would have objected if they had understood WBR's business plan. WCET in Cincinnati, which took underwriting from the Alliance for airing it twice a week in off hours, began investigating the program after an On the Media reporter called, according to Grace Hill, program director.
The program is of decent quality, Hill says, but "if it didn't have underwriting, I doubt very much if we would have a spot for it." She says the station also wouldn't air it if it's true that guests pay to be on the show.
In Roanoke, Va., where WBRA lists the Alliance as an underwriter, the station dropped the show last fall because it was "not particularly strong," says General Manager Jack Neal. If the station had known how WBR is funded, they would not have carried it at all, says Cynthia Gray, director of development.
"I frankly worry about how many stations are as aware as they should be," Neal observes. "If somebody wants to sneak something like this by, they probably can."
Some programmers did question WBR. Stan Marvin, p.d. at KRCB in Rohnert Park, Calif., told On the Media that he dropped the program after watching some episodes last summer. WBR "is a total puff piece," he said in a Current interview. "This is not at all what we want to carry."
What Marvin heard may well have been a typically unchallenging interview between Haig and a company exec like this exchange with Warren J. Kaplan, president of a computer company called Accellion:
Haig: Does this solution you describe produce a quick and solid improvement in ROI?
Kaplan: Absolutely, Al.
Before watching the show closely, Marvin had been pleased to have a man as famous as Haig hosting a show on KRCB.
The producers got a positive effect, Garfield indicated: "WBR thrives on a delicately balanced ecosystem of borrowed prestige in which the appearance of broad university connections, General Haig's international stature and public television's mission are inextricably linked."
Not a shabby ecosystem for the price. Clynes said in Current's 1996 report that revealed how WBR works [earlier article] that the producers charged $10,000 to $50,000 for their package of services. How well did the clients like what they got?
Bill Palamountain, president of Solvent Waste Management Inc., was pleased. The Houston-based maker of a waste-chemicals recycling machine especially liked being able to distribute a videotape of the program about his machine. He said the producers charged an amount comparable to the cost of several ads in trade publications.
David Graves, a v.p. at DMS Inc., a Dallas-area maker of credit-industry software, was disappointed. DMS paid less than $50,000 for a segment on WBR, he said, and Multi Media didn't do as much work or get the show as much carriage as he expected. The producers "pretty much took" the copy he had prepared for the interview. On top of that, Graves says, "The president of the company's mother wanted to see him on TV, and we never could find it."
Web page originally posted Feb. 26, 2002
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