World Business Review, a forthcoming public television and radio talk program co-hosted by former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, has taken an unorthodox approach to raising income--having program guests underwrite the segments in which they appear.
Not surprisingly, some news and program managers object to the arrangement, saying it gives the appearance that money can buy airtime on public broadcasting's news and discussion forums.
The 26-part weekly show is the brainchild of Thomas Clynes, formerly a marketer and producer of Inside Technology, a client-funded series for direct-mail and cable distribution. The new program, World Business Review, gathers corporate execs to talk about various industry problems and the technological products and services they've developed to address these problems.
The program is produced by Clynes' start-up company Multi-Media Productions "USA" Inc., based in Boca Raton, Fla. Weinberger co-hosts the program with David Hazinski, a onetime NBC News reporter who is currently a professor of telecommunications at the University of Georgia and who produces public relations "video news releases" on the side.
Public broadcaster WLRN-FM/TV in Miami, which had just announced that it would be the "presenting station" for the series, reversed direction after hearing about the program's funding arrangement. "We had some issues with them regarding the situation with their funding that they weren't able to answer to our satisfaction," said WLRN Communications Director Carmen Salman.
Central Educational Network will distribute the series through the public TV satellite system as planned, free of charge to stations. CEN is leaving the carriage decision to stations, said Joan Lence, programming v.p. Lence said she had not been aware the program was underwritten by its guests and plans to give the stations further information as it becomes avaiable.
Neither the Review nor its promos reveal that the c.e.o.'s who are program guests also are sponsors. But Clynes and Hazinski, when asked, openly explain that the chief execs pay between $10,000 and $50,000 to be guests and to receive other marketing services.
The idea, he says, is to give corporate sponsors "more for their money" than if they merely got standard underwriting credits. Public radio and TV distribution is "only the tip of the iceberg," he explains. "We send out thousands of tapes to target markets. ... we send out program guides to notify the industry. ... We put the companies who help underwrite the series on our web site." Multi-Media also gives the underwriters/guests customized videotapes--essentially, the Review segment plus the company's mission statement, Clynes says.
Review also carries conventional 15- and 30-second underwriting spots.
Objections to the underwriting setup first surfaced in the public radio system, where awareness of Review is greater than on the TV side. It appears talk about the show began after NPR looked into it because of an ad in Current saying an audio version of Review would be available "for National Public Radio."
"We asked them to notify their customers [and] make sure they didn't leave the impression they were an NPR program," says spokesperson Kathy Scott. Some public radio stations subsequently discovered they were listed on a "Radio Clearance Report" distributed by the producer, though they deny committing to air the program. At least one listed station, lefty Pacifica Network's KPFA in Berkeley, says it never heard of World Business Review. A few of these stations called Multi-Media to complain; a new clearance list the company released last week omits several call letters that were on the first list, including KPFA.
Multi-Media says about 20 television stations have committed to carrying Review, which will launch in September. The radio version should launch in October, Clynes says.
World Business Review uses a funding method similar to that of a new series of corporate histories announced by the History Channel. The cable service, operated by the A&E Network, had planned that major corporations would be co-producers of their own histories with final say over the productions. The funding plan was much criticized, and in June the cable network bagged the project.
The new business series from Clynes "is tantamount to vanity radio," says John Dinges, a former NPR news executive who helped organize a 1994 conference about ethics in public radio journalism. A program like Review "tends to work against all of our efforts to establish the highest journalistic standards for public radio news programming," he says. "With Weinberger's name attached, it has the veneer of a public affairs, quasi-news program. In fact, it's a program [for which] you pay money to get your voice on the air."
Says Mark Boardman, new program director for New Hampshire Public Radio: "The perception it gives is that we can be bought, and once that perception gets out, anybody who's close to the program is tainted."
Although not familiar with the program, Peter Downey, PBS' v.p. for program business affairs, says it's clear the underwriting arrangement would make it unacceptable for PBS distribution. The network's guidelines bar distribution of any program that fosters even a perception of ceded editorial control, he says. "The average viewer is going to have to ask him or herself, what's going on here? 'XYZ' company is talking about 'XYZ' company's product, demonstrating how wonderful it is, and they discover at end of the program, XYZ company is paying for it. There's a name for that. It's called a commercial."
A demo tape for the series indicates that panelists spend at least some of their airtime discussing big-picture technological issues. In one segment, they discuss what the next five years have in store for media industries--"convergence." Another show has guests discussing the inability of clocks built into today's computers to make the transition from year 1999 to 2000--what one panelist says will be a $300-$600 billion dollar problem. That segment looks at three technologies that "make software work in sync, in time and problem free," according to a Review program guide.
Having the CEOs discuss their own technology gives viewers rare, unfiltered access to industry leaders and their ideas, Clynes says. He points out that the show also has a bank of experts, who can deliver hard questions to the guests.
Some pre-produced segments come from the headquarters and labs of the guests/underwriters, but most of the produced footage focuses on product users, Clynes says. "It gives credibility to see that this technology being applied at Ford Motor Company is really working," he says.
Clynes and Hazinski both say that any concerns about cloaked commercialism are unfounded because the producers have complete editorial control.
"I had the same concerns as the critics when I first started this," says Clynes. "Is it going to be a self-serving softball game out there? But my fears were alleviated after the first shoot. These are executives, c.e.o.'s of major corporations. They know very well if they get up there and toot their own horn, they will have no credibility."
Hazinski, too, had to think about signing on to Review. "I told [Multi-Media] my biggest concern was editorial control. If they tell me, 'You have to ask this question because it's important to [the paying guests],' well, fine, but it has to be important to me and Cap."
Assurances about editorial control don't address the fact that Review's criteria for choosing guests are wholly different than traditional journalistic ones. The program, says Ralph Jennings, g.m. of WFUV-FM, New York, has "a dubious rationale for interviewing somebody. ... I want a selection process related to the quality and character of a person to be interviewed, and newsworthiness, not someone with a long purse or a big ego."
Clynes says not all guests have to underwrite. About two out of 16 shows produced so far featured nonpaying guests, he says.
Hazinski says that Review is, ultimately, just a different animal from conventional public affairs programs. "[The show] is very similar to a trade rag. ... Essentially it's a special-interest news or public affairs show about people who have the most vested interest in it, who end up paying for it."
The public is seeing "a broadening of the spectrum of communications," the professor says. "Everything doesn't fall into simple, clearly defined, small categories anymore. ... The Internet, specialty channels, infomercials, I guess, are another example of it. We may not like them, but millions of people watch them." Review just happens to be a forum for c.e.o.'s to talk about their products and services. These execs just want "a fair shot," says Hazinski. "They want the opportunity to explain themselves, their company's position and new technology."
Though Clynes says many stations are excited about the show, Hazinski admits the underwriting setup may make it a tough sell. Clynes indicates that Review can fly even without public TV carriage, because of the direct-mail videocassette distribution, as well as promotional sidelights such as web advertisements and the program guides. But Hazinski says he wants this show on the air.
Whatever television carriage the program achieves, it has gotten off to a rocky start in radio. First there was the use of NPR's name in the Current ad, a type of apparent mis-use that NPR sees now and again. Independent programs will refer to "NPR" in their promotional materials--innocently or not--to capitalize on the fact they are being delivered over the Public Radio Satellite System, which is managed by NPR. Clynes appears to be confused about the obscure relationships. When Review visited the Public Radio Satellite System, he says, "we were in the NPR building. We were walking through NPR. Everything had NPR on it." There is "confusion about their guidelines," he says.
Review's latest advertisements do not mention "NPR," and a program guide cover now says the show is not affiliated with PBS or NPR. Underneath that, however, is a headline proclaiming that Review can be heard on "these National Public Radio stations."
That station list includes some that say they never committed to the show, such as KPFA and WFUV. This foul-up or purposeful misrepresentation, whichever it was, has antagonized those involved. Boardman says he finds it "grating" and questions the program's credibility. Jennings says "my name on the list makes me less inclined to carry it, because I'm not going to be hoodwinked or snookered into carrying anything." Clynes says that all the radio stations on the list signed intent-to-carry cards at the Public Radio Conference. Jennings says he didn't, but that he did fill out a TV raffle ticket at the Review booth.
Web page content originally posted Sept. 16, 1996
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