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At pledgetime, the self-help gurus on PBS offer guidance in a secular world

Originally published in Current, May 13, 1996
By Geneva Collins

Deepak Chopra has just finished an interview in the deserted bar of Washington's Willard Hotel and rises to go upstairs to speak at a WETA luncheon in his honor. The bartender intercepts him to gush, "Oh, I just love you! I'm so excited to meet you."

The unsolicited testimony from a wide-eyed fan could not have been more perfect had it been staged. Though it turns out the bartender hadn't tuned in for WETA's six hours of Chopra the day before, thousands of other devotees did. He has become the PBS's latest star in an emotionally engaging public-TV genre that some people call "inspirational how-to."

Chopra joins a long succession of lecturers who made studio phones ring at pledge time, including fitness guru Covert Bailey, "inner child" champion John Bradshaw, and hug therapist Leo Buscaglia--the man many credit with creating the prototype with his first public TV show in 1979.

A definition of what constitutes "inspirational" programming is as warm and fuzzy as the messages often are themselves. Jim Scalem, PBS v.p. for fundraising programming, prefers the term "self-help" for the genre. Some may include Bill Moyers' one-on-one chats with mythology expert Joseph Campbell or religion scholar Huston Smith as examples of such programming, and also perhaps producer/director John Nathan's "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," based on business whiz Stephen Covey's best-selling book.

With the exception of some documentary segments, all dare to be talking-head shows, and the gutsiest take the format of Chopra, Bailey, Bradshaw and Buscaglia: the taped lecture in front of a live audience and a merciless camera, with little if any scripting or re-takes.

"The people who are good at this prove that there is something more seductive than TV itself," said Robert Thompson, one of three scholars of TV and popular culture who discussed the success of these gurus with Current.

"In the end, the good infomercial, the good self-help speaker depend on good, old-fashioned soap box speeches," said Thompson, associate professor of television at Syracuse University and author of six books on the medium, including the just-published Television's Second Golden Age.

And like the televangelist or infomercial host, the soap box speech is followed promptly by a pitch for money.

Public TV's classy image confers respectability on a type of programming "that has a certain snake-oil quality about it," said Thompson. "But then, self-help has helped a lot of selves."

Scalem bristled at the comparison to infomercials. "The infomercials I've watched are totally geared to a product. ... People like Chopra and Covert Bailey are conveying information, just like you learn about Chinese cooking from Martin Yan and home repair from those two on Hometime."

The Benjamin Franklin model

These speakers have credentials that should clearly elevate them above snake-oil accusations. Chopra is an Indian-born, U.S.-trained M.D. who blends Western medical techniques with the Eastern healing art known as Ayurveda, which emphasizes meditation and other spiritual approaches to wellness. He is the author of some 14 books, and his latest PBS offering is "The Way of the Wizard." Bailey has a master's degree in nutritional biochemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and wrote the Fit or Fat series of self-help books. Bradshaw has been a family counselor for more than two decades and was a professor at Rice University before his television career took off. Buscaglia taught at the University of Southern California, giving popular courses on the importance of love.

"I agree completely that this area of programming is a gamble, and it's kind of difficult to set editorial standards for, like PBS does for news programming," said Marjorie Poore, who produced four of Bradshaw's series at KQED, San Francisco, and her own production company, Marjorie Poore Productions.

She also knows the names critics call such programming: "touchy-feely, California psychobabble."

"But John [Bradshaw] was talking about issues like domestic violence years before it was making headlines," she adds.

Media professor Michael Marsden sees these spiritual and psychological advisers fulfilling a much larger cultural need.

"We're always looking for ways of self-improvement, how to be healthier, wiser, more psychologically sound. We're following the Benjamin Franklin model that we should always be trying to improve ourselves, and we look to these gurus to show us the pathways," said Marsden, co-editor of the scholarly Journal of Popular Film and Television and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Northern Michigan University. For many Americans seeking to know how to behave, commercial TV gives guidance through popular situation comedies, said Marsden.

Thompson is surprised that commercial broadcasters haven't aped PBS's self-help programming. Their closest equivalent is the talk shows, he said.

But commercial TV chooses to operate at a different level. Chopra said he appreciates that public TV doesn't ask him to talk down to the audience. "Whenever I've done commercial television, the producer comes to me and says, 'our audience is at eighth-grade level, so please don't be complicated, don't use difficult words, tone down what your saying'."

How did we get to a place where Americans now seek spiritual and psychological guidance through a home appliance rather than in big weekly gatherings of the faithful?

A private way to seek guidance

"We live in a country that's been spiritually bankrupt, and there's an intense need, an intense desire, an intense thirst, for this kind of material. It has just never been available through television before," Chopra told Current. His popularity in the '90s is not a consequence of aging boomer angst but part of a global holistic health movement, he said.

Marsden agreed with Chopra that Americans are spiritually needy.

"People's hunger for the spiritual, the otherworldliness, is very deep and very significant. If they don't get it in a secular world, they may become despondent. ... The media has taken over the traditional role of the church. Better [spiritual guidance] from TV than nowhere."

Thompson is a bit more troubled by the trend. "As much as I'm a defender of TV as an art form, TV for the most part makes a lousy spiritual guide. ... It's such a visual medium."

He does however, see that TV can be useful in stimulating people to seek help or information elsewhere. In other words, an alcoholic tuning into Bradshaw might muster the nerve to call A.A. the next day.

Thompson and Jan Tilmon, executive director for programming and production at Sacramento's KVIE, who produced Buscaglia's and Bailey's shows, both said that part of the appeal of this programming about intimate concerns is that the viewer can participate anonymously.

"When you're going to put yourself in the hands of a spiritual guru, to do this in 1996, in the ironic, sarcastic age we're living in, you're making yourself very vulnerable," said Thompson. "It's saying a lot of things about you that you don't want to admit. ... It's no coincidence that both spiritualism and pornography have thrived on videotape."

Motivational speakers and self-help authors are a dime a dozen and regularly flood public TV stations with proposals ("you should see my office!" said Tilmon). But what elevates them to broadcast status?

The on-camera personas of Dr. Chopra and his forerunners are as different as their individual credos. Chopra has mesmerizing eyes and a contemplative speaking manner that some find hypnotic and others soporific. Bradshaw, with his Texas twang, sounds for all the world like a Bible-thumping preacher. Buscaglia comes off as a cuddly teddy bear. Bailey, with his endless mugging and funny voices, is as much a stand-up comic as a nutritionist.

"Obviously, these people have to be performers, but they also have to communicate a certain vulnerability, that they've been there themselves, that they wanted at one point to feel better about themselves," said Gary Edgerton, president of the American Culture Association (an academic organization studying popular culture) and chair of the Department of Communication and Theater Arts at Old Dominion University.

"As a producer, there's always a temptation to do more" than the decidedly low-tech format of taping the speaker in front of the studio audience, said Tilmon. "But then you realize it's absolutely critical for these people to be in the best environment to be at their best, and anything else will detract from this."

If these self-help programs are performing such a valuable service, why does PBS run most of them only at pledge time?

"The reason a station would not show them outside a pledge drive is that frankly they have been such a successful fundraising vehicle," said Scalem.

It's their emotional charge that makes them work when public TV passes the collection plate. Many viewers are ready to pledge to their public TV stations--they know it's a good thing and that it needs money--but are naturally reluctant to part with money, says Pat Harris, research director at WGBH, Boston. But they do pledge when a program touches their emotions.

"That is why factual programs like National Geographic has no emotional chord to get people to the phone, whereas a nostalgic music program or self-help shows strike a chord with people. They think, 'this is just like my family.' "

Scalem said Chopra's shows did "very well" during the March [1996] pledge drive though they didn't approach the megahit of the Les Miserables concert. According to WETA, The Way of the Wizard raised nearly $70,000 for the station, but Les Mis, which had multiple prime-time airings, pulled in more than five times that.

Tilmon thinks the gurus draw the same audience that watches other how-to's: "I'm sure you're aware there's a host of people who watch This Old House and cooking shows who don't build houses or even cook. There's a fascination of learning, a fantasy of 'I could do that.' ... People want to feel they have control in their lives and that they have the information and the ability to make improvements."

Photo of Buscaglia by Teresa Jo, courtesy of KVIE, Sacramento.

Web page posted June 3, 1996
Copyright 1996 by Current Publishing Committee

Chopra speaking to audience

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Buscaglia hugging

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