Bad Science on PBS
Ever turn on the TV to PBS, expecting to sit down and enjoy some good high quality programming, but were met instead with an infomercial pitching some weird New Agey, pseudosciencey, mind-over-mattery, self-helpy woo? Despite its reputation for showing only the best in science, cultural, and educational programs, public broadcasting has long been guilty of lapsing into just the opposite, especially at a very specific time of year: the pledge break. Today we're going to find out why.
These pledge breaks are likely to bring you what appears to be a special presentation, usually a self-help guru in front of a large live studio audience, apparently as part of the pledge drive. The guru pitches their particular expertise, while carefully following the PBS requirement not to give an explicit advertising call to action. This guru is often someone like pop personal finance sage Suze Orman; promoters of unscientific medicine Andrew Weil, Mark Hyman, David Perlmutter, or Daniel Amen; the late motivational speaker Wayne Dyer, or New Age spiritualist Deepak Chopra, to name just a few. Such gurus will often wow their audiences with miraculous claims and pitch quasi-psychology and quasi-medicine. And then, returning to the pledge break, guess whose books and products the PBS station spokesman offers for sale?
What just happened? Is this guru showing their support for this local PBS affiliate by showing up at the pledge drive, giving a free lecture, and offering their own products out of their own pockets as giveaways to new supporters? Or could it be that you just unwittingly gave a portion of your TV viewing time — and possibly your money — to the dreaded infomercial?
Let's take a quick look at what exactly PBS is and how it works. The Public Broadcasting Service is an independent nonprofit. In broad strokes, it's generally similar to a major television network, except they don't actually produce any content. They distribute a number of television series, such as NOVA, Sesame Street, Antiques Roadshow, and others. About 350 local public broadcasting stations throughout the United States purchase this content and air it. Part of their deal as a PBS affiliate is that they supplement their broadcasting with local programming, which they're responsible for producing or buying themselves.
Where the whole system often comes under fire is during their pledge drives, usually about four times a year and lasting a week or two, when they break from their normal programming schedules and show different content intended to draw more eyeballs. It's like Sweeps Week for nonprofits. They all compete to show the most compelling programming they can, and hopefully win more pledges from viewers. It is this pledge drive period when many public broadcasting affiliate stations show their least scientific shows.
PBS provides over 100 hours of pledge programming to the stations each year, but the stations have to pay for it, and many of them seek cheaper alternatives. Fortunately, other distributors who specialize in pledge drive programming are ready to answer the call. Chief among these is Executive Program Services, whose web catalog lists hundreds of infomercials from practically every charlatan and bestselling author of miracle solutions you've ever heard of. All of the ones I looked at were listed for free. (Since they are advertising, you might expect money to flow from the advertiser to the station; but FCC regulations forbid PBS affiliates from charging for air time.) I won't even go into the pitches given for each of these videos; they are so full of every red flag of pseudoscience, I wouldn't know where to begin. If you're a regular Skeptoid listener you probably already know the drill; if you're not, visit the Executive Program Services website and see for yourself. Each video lists its PBS "pledge event timings" and many come in various lengths to suit different pledge drive schedules; and of course, each video also lists the accompanying "premiums" like a book and DVD package, or a "coaching program" or some other wallet-lightening rubbish.
In a 2009 interview, PBS' Vice President of fundraising programming Joe Campbell explained the economics of this:
In other words, this producer or guru — as often as not, a pseudoscience-promoting charlatan — doesn't just get their self-produced informercial aired for free, they also get to sell a boatload of their products to the affiliate station. They walk away counting their money, and you — the viewer — pledge money to support the station, and part of that money goes straight into the guru's pocket.
But the more I looked into this, the more finger-pointing I encountered. A 2009 article in the Las Vegas Review-Journal discussed criticism received by their local PBS affiliate, Channel 10, for running infomercials by self-help guru Wayne Dyer. The station manager, Tom Axtell, replied
...suggesting that at least some of these infomercials are coming from PBS, and not from third parties like Executive Program Services. So I picked up the phone and called the PBS Ombudsman, who advised me that Wayne Dyer infomercials were, in fact, distributed by PBS. I then spoke to the office of fundraising programming and they sent me PBS' complete list of all the pledge drive programming they provided affiliates during fiscal year 2015.
I found this list to be, largely, everything you'd hope it would be. A lot of great music performances, top episodes of regular PBS series, some excellent documentaries, and only four infomercials. Unfortunately, three of these four promote alternative medicine gurus who have been extensively lambasted in the science media for promoting dubious miracle treatments: Dr. Oz business partner Michael Roizen, anti-aging mystic Christiane Northrup, and fad diet pitchman Joel Fuhrman. All three are lauded by the popular media for their bestselling books, outgoing personalities, and positive miracle messaging. In other words, they are exactly what the Las Vegas Channel 10 station manager said PBS was looking for.
So although PBS is providing only a small percentage of the pseudoscience infomercials that drag the pledge drives into crap-a-thon oblivion, they don't seem to take much interest in advising viewers of the fact. On their website, PBS.org, you can search for shows. You can search for any of the gurus we've mentioned, or any of the other infomercials you may have seen yourself. And to my surprise, even the shows PBS told me were not provided by them, DO show up in the searches! I watched half a dozen 30-second promo spots for infomercials promoting subjects that I know, from my work, to be flagrant pseudoscience; and yet not one of them appeared in the list PBS sent me. I asked why, giving one particular video as an example, and the office replied:
I'm not completely dim, but despite this stated difference in the presentation of PBS and non-PBS programming, I did not notice the difference. What about when you see it on TV, is there a way to know whether you're seeing PBS programming or something coming from a woo-mill like Executive Program Services? PBS gives the following explanation in their published Editorial Standards and Policies:
From everything I've seen, PBS does not place a high priority on putting any separation between themselves and flagrant pseudoscience that rips off consumers looking for miraculously easy solutions to difficult problems. They do distribute such content themselves — albeit only a small percentage of the total — they happily include third party pseudoscience in their online catalog which gives every reasonable appearance of being a catalog of PBS-approved content, and they allow affiliate stations to broadcast any kind of such content, no matter how outrageous, and to attach the PBS logo to it.
As a listener-supported nonprofit myself, I understand the need to appeal to the broadest audience. I also understand the need to meet the audience's expectations. It seems clear that a general television audience is not as demanding as the audience for a microscopic, niche podcast like Skeptoid. If I dropped my standards and ran an episode promoting crystal therapy, that would be the end of me right there; whereas the television audience is more likely to enthusiastically embrace a degreed guru who comes on with promises of a miracle cure and bears all the trappings of endorsement by PBS, which is one of the most respected names in all of media. This fact gives PBS a little bit of leeway, a reason to "loosely interpret" their mission; and the flexibility to leverage their credibility into profiteering in a way that some might describe as disingenuous.
So, let this Skeptoid episode stand as my contribution to the chorus of science communicators calling for PBS and its affiliates to do a much better job; to stop being lazy and going for the lowest-hanging fruit. Start vetting the gurus you promote for pseudoscience; you already know how to do it. No end of excellent nonprofit documentary and educational material is available in the world (you already broadcast most of it), and it is possible — if not easy — to make smart enough programming decisions that you will do better for your bottom line than you have been by simply airing the bestselling charlatans' infomercials. Take a stand FOR your viewers, and BE the resource they expect you to be.
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