Those “sponsorships” and other things

As I was saying, in last week’s mailbag, there was too much mail to post in a single column at the time and so a follow-up and catch-up posting would come in the next few days. Here it is.

Once again, most of the letters from viewers focus on the “experiments” and would-be changes coming to the way some PBS programs — online and on television — are being or will be presented to viewers; whether they will contain program promotions and brief paid commercial sponsorships in the body of programs rather than just at the beginning and the end. Some of these experiments have already begun with PBS videos viewed online. Others are proposed for some television broadcasts.

I have written several times in the past two months about these changes, the reasons why PBS is evaluating them and viewer reactions, both real and anticipated.

And, once again, all the letters coming to me about these changes are critical. PBS officials are obviously aware that there will be hurdles to overcome if these new formats become permanent online and on the air, and previous columns have explained why they feel new approaches need to be tried. Posting these letters today and in recent weeks is not some attempt to put an early seal of disapproval on these ideas, but it does reflect a so far unanimous sense of disappointment at least among those who write to me.

Selling Sponsorships or Selling Out?

Let me add my voice to the chorus against commercial interruption of PBS programming by sponsors. Acknowledging underwriting by companies or foundations is reasonable. Commercials for products lower my opinion of PBS management and policy. Those who would slash government funding to PBS cry out for it to prove its worth in the marketplace by selling advertisements as networks and cable must do, to help provide funds for programs. This ‘lowest common denominator’ mentality has given us deplorable ‘entertainment’, dubious information, and extremely limited choices in the areas of the arts (music, theatre, drama, performance).

Television governed by the marketplace is what led me to turn off my cable, discontinue satellite, and entertain myself by way of Netflix and programs available over the internet. I would prefer to subscribe to PBS as I do Netflix, rather than see it become just another niche network, competing on cable for the audience with the most money to spend on things they’ve been convinced they must buy.

K. Blalock, Longview, TX

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Horrors! Prime-time programming being interrupted by commercials? I can’t believe it. I love the NewsHour and Nova but I will have to stop watching PBS and contributing to them if they continue this foolishness. This is not Public Television as I know it. I agree with those who think PBS should fire those persons who dreamed this one up.

Ed Beach, Enid, OK

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The prospect of more advertising, both on PBS and NPR, is certainly alarming. Advertising by its nature must include sponsors, who have already had some influence on content by threatening to withhold support if a program cut too close to their bone.

How can we remind Congress that: Irrespective of federal funds, the FCC broadcasting licenses held by public radio and television stations are for “noncommercial, educational” purposes. That is, federal policy establishes a special category of broadcasting service that is intended to protect public media from the pressures of ratings and rampant commercialism, and it actually prevents them from many standard commercial broadcast advertising practices such as direct calls to action, mentions of product prices and hard selling.

K. H., Kamuela, HI

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Hello. I read a recent news report about the plan to change the format of PBS shows to include promo segments analogous to ad breaks on commercial television. No doubt you are receiving plenty of comments about this, so I will be brief. The world is becoming a single globalized commercial entity (echoes of Francis Fukuyama and Thomas Friedman). In this hyper-economistic world, only small enclaves of attention to non-commercial values remain. One option is to disband PBS and let producers and filmmakers seek outlets elsewhere, since there is little reason to spend public money on something that is not much different from the rest. Another option is to remove and replace the people whose value set pushes them to propose and implement something so inappropriate. I vote for the latter option.

Richard Box, Bellevue, NE

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I fully support the heartfelt comments [in the June 10 mailbag] made by McCool, Olwell, and the viewer from Portland, OR, regarding the commercial intrusions during regular programming. But they need to consider that funding to PBS is subject to severe cuts by Congress. Wouldn’t it be interesting if the very people who put them in office wanted to further examine their compensation package? Imagine if our Representatives and Senators had to get their own insurance coverage.

With that said, I need to share my thoughts about our local PBS station — WHYY Philadelphia. Approximately eight times a year (both radio and TV) we are subjected to the most embarrassing display of fund-raising from a public station that has a surplus of $1.7 million. On top of that the CEO/president’s annual compensation is $448,161. WHYY needs to keep in mind that it is a PUBLIC media station not NBC, CBS, ABC, etc. where outlandish salaries are commonplace.

Plymouth Meeting, PA

Frankly, Darling . . .

Who gives a damn anymore? Our protests though loud and clear fall on deaf ears. PBS is going to do whatever they want . . . regardless. The sponsor’s time has expanded over the years as one writer noted. Programs have shrunk and frankly, some of the content has suffered. NOVA used to be like a “Scientific American” magazine of the past. Now we are treated to high dollar productions of mini docu-dramas and a most irritating voice-over participant.

David Petersen, Kansas City, MO

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What a joy to find this opportunity to comment on the recent shameless commercialization of public broadcasting. No surveys have ever come my way. Before the creeping ads of recent years, my husband and I were ongoing, financially contributing members of our local PBS stations. During the past several years, however, we have been angered by the proliferation of advertisements. The Hall of Shame roster that is allowed to buy honey-toned PR time on PBS is especially offensive: BP, Standard Oil, Big Mining, Big Finance . . . all the world-class criminals doing damage control by association with public broadcasting. If I have to suffer interminable advertising on our “non-commercial” TV stations so they can rake in corporate lucre, those stations can jolly well do without my cash. Thank you for this opportunity to comment. I wish I were more hopeful that journalists such as yourself, with integrity and high standards, would gain the upper hand again at PBS. We were hopeful that the winds would change with the Obama administration. It is puzzling and discouraging that things are getting worse, not better.

Suisun City, CA

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It’s pretty clear that PBS is in its death throes, and deservedly so. The “begathons” go on for a full month now with the same creaky old shows and infomercials repeated ad infinitum. When will management figure out that no one is watching, thus no one is donating? That dog doesn’t hunt any more!

Los Altos, CA

About Frontline

Why should we be surprised that PBS is selling out further? When you recently mentioned that you were surprised there wasn’t more comments about Frontline’s WikiLeaks story, I was a bit bemused. Frontline sold out with their story “Sick In America” by severely underplaying the concept of “single payer”. Their prior story, “Sick Around The World” was excellent. As discussed, we are liberals/progressives. We are the ones who have the anti-war voices, that are not played. We’re the ones who truly support the concept of PBS, and it has ignored us. We don’t ask PBS to editorialize, just express our position. Frontline’s WikiLeaks story didn’t adequately explain the viewpoint of the injustice in the treatment of Manning or Assange . . . You have stated that PBS does not represent many unheard voices. PBS seems to be afraid of speaking truth to power. As a result, it’s getting strangled by the conservatives. It’s seems ironic to me that you would ignore us, the very ones who believe in watchdog, unbiased media. It appears that PBS is cutting their own throat.

E. Rivers, Portland, ME

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I am writing this in regard to certain episodes on Frontline that deal with the war on terror, but more specifically the Iraq war. I am a veteran who was deployed twice to Iraq and one time to Afghanistan. It seems to me that all of the stories, on Frontline, are about mistakes by leadership, war crimes by regular soldiers like myself and that we were demoralized because we were lied to by Bush etc. What upsets me and a lot of other soldiers, who have given their heart and soul to this noble endeavor (to us) is that the points made are not always objective.

Now we are not a bunch of naive fools. Trust me when I said huge mistakes were made, either by the leadership or we doing the dirty work. It’s just that when you bring up something such as, what allegedly happened in Haditha, rightfully, but not readdressing it when it was proved false isn’t objective. It smacks of propaganda. We both know a lot of Americans are misinformed and manipulated by those elites in both parties. My point is this, we had enough problems as it was, without needing false or dubious reporting. There are a lot of citizens who agree with why we were there and know what the facts on the ground were. I totally agree with those that said the situation was a mess at one time and was close to collapsing. A lot of so-called “experts” in the media and government said Iraq was a lost cause. I think it’s safe to say now that we turned it around and Iraq, though it’s still fragile.

What I want to ask of you at PBS, is there anyway you can do an episode about that. We in the military are proud of the fact that we did not quit. We fought hard, used our heads, and for the second time in history, we defeated an insurgency. So, if you really claim to be objective, do us this favor and tell the truth to America.

R. Williams, Dallas, GA

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I have a high regard for PBS, but I am having marked difficulties with Michael Kirk’s Breaking the Bank. First, the breaking point for Paulson seemed to be Lehman Bros., not Merrill Lynch. Second, by the end of the piece, I was left with the distinct impression that some terrible error lay at the base of what amounted to the heisting of our economy. Wall Street bankers did not trip over a shoelace and accidentally sell three trillion dollars of ersatz insurance; derivatives were not invented to smooth financial transactions, but to shield massive and massively illegitimate ones that left brokers and bankers proportionately enriched and in an ideal position to threaten absolute collapse in the event that any effort were made to hold them to account for them. The film suggests that they were “villainized” by the public and the congress, and somehow overlooked the ongoing frolic that brought on a planetary upheaval that had been planned upon from the beginning, and from which they profited immensely. They commit one of the most consciously organized and lucrative conquistas of modern history and I am expected to regard them as the naive victims of hubris and a faulty dogma? This is simply inane.

Alexander Wayles, Aspen, CO

About the NewsHour

I am an atheist. I do care very much that everyone has the right to choose whichever god they wish. Gwen Ifill asking about Mormonism as “too big a hurdle to overcome” or similar was leading and biased and eventually another evidence that PBS is a liberal factory.

Anthony White, The Woodlands, TX

(Ombudsman’s Note: Ifill actually asked, Do “we have any evidence that Americans are ready for that big a change?”)

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The airing of different viewpoints is an outstanding feature of The NewsHour, but I have been concerned lately because I don’t understand who some of the guests are and why they have been invited. In a recent program, guests were from the Center for American Progress, the Center for a New American Security and the Institute for Policy Studies. I don’t know what these institutions are, what integrity they have and how they are funded. It would be very helpful to include information about the different centers and institutes when a guest is introduced.

Brookline, MA

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I was disappointed, once again, that the NewsHour chose to cover the politics of climate change, not the science of climate change. Does not the news media have the responsibility to report the truth if the truth be reasonably knowable? If one party says that the My Lai Massacre is real and the other party says it is a hoax — do you then report on “the debate?” If one party says we landed a man on the moon, and the other says we did not, do you report on “the debate?” Climate Science is based on EVIDENCE and you can study and report on that EVIDENCE and tell you viewers THE TRUTH rather than continue to play games of “he says/she says.” Do you not have that responsibility to investigate and report the truth? By avoiding that responsibility are you not actually broadcasting the reporting of falsehoods?

James Adcock, Bellevue, WA

On Video Games and the Supreme Court

The following letter from viewer Andy Ewens relates to a NewsHour segment June 27 on the Supreme Court decision to strike down a California statute that banned the sale and rental of violent video games to minors. At one point during that segment, senior correspondent Gwen Ifill asked Marcia Coyle of The National Law Journal, “So, what’s in these games that we’re talking about? They’re very — probably, anybody with a teenager at home is familiar with them.” Coyle said, “There is everything. There is shooting. There’s killing. There’s rape. There’s urinating on women or children.”

Ewens wrote: “I strongly urge you to suggest that a clarification be run that states: ‘The comments Marcia Coyle made regarding the content of video games does not reflect on the industry as a whole and specifically does not correspond to the footage of games that was being run when the comments were made.’ The games that were featured in the footage were COD4, Dead Space, and Grand Theft Auto IV. It would be easy enough to determine that none of those games feature urinating on women or children, rape, or any form of sexual assault.”

Some others who commented on the NewsHour website also felt Coyle’s remarks were unfair and her descriptions inaccurate.

When I asked about this, Ifill responded this way: “The purpose of Marcia Coyle’s appearances on the NewsHour is to provide an analysis of what drove the thinking of the justices when they reached a decision. It is not to fact check the justices. Marcia accurately described the reasoning applied to this decision. I was not asking Marcia to comment on ‘mainstream’ games. I was asking her to comment on what the justices were basing their decisions on.” She included this example that was in the majority opinion footnotes and said, “That’s what they based their decision on. Gamers might have problems with it, but that’s what Marcia was describing.”

My own sense of this is that this one exchange between Ifill and Coyle could have been more precise in linking Coyle’s comments to the specifics of the Supreme Court case and arguments. Aside from the footnote provided above in response to the viewer criticism, the newspapers made similar points. The news story in The New York Times the next day quoted Justice Samuel Alito as saying, “The objective of one game is to rape a mother and her daughters,” while The Washington Post also reported Alito describing games in which the goal is raping Native American women or killing ethnic and religious minorities. And, while the games shown briefly in the segment may not feature rape or urinating on women, as the viewer points out, they do show shooting and killing, which Coyle also talked about.

This column was originally published on on June 29, 2011.

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