Thursday, February 15, 2007

PBS Obesity Series Tainted By Diet Drug Sponsor

What's GlaxoSmithKline doing sponsoring a new obesity series on PBS?

Something fishy is going on with an upcoming program about obesity on your friendly public television station and this Broadcasting & Cable story provides all the sordid details about what is going on.

It seems there is a new set of programs coming out on PBS in April called "Fat: What No One Is Telling You" as part of the "Take One Step" series of shows. Learn more about this documentary and even meet the producers as well as an interview with them.

From what I can see, the filmmakers are mainly going to highlight the problem rather than seek out solutions to the obesity epidemic. That's not really my concern, but it is an interesting sidebar. (Why examine a problem in a series of shows on public television if you aren't going to offer suggestions about how to address that problem? But I digress.)

While the subject matter is indeed an important one that needs to have a platform and is absolutely relevant programming for public television, it's the inclusion of one particular major sponsor--a pharmaceutical company--who just so happens to have a brand new over-the-counter weight loss pill to offer overweight and obese people that has many concerned.

The culprit in all of this is GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) who provided what is described on the PBS web site as "major funding" for this show set to be aired beginning on April 11, 2007. While their sponsorship deal with PBS may seem like it's just a generous act of care and compassion by a company concerned about the delicate subject matter of the series, it's difficult to ignore the fact that GSK recently got FDA approval to sell the first over-the-counter version of the diet drug orlistat called "Alli" which they have already invested a lot of time and money into bringing to the market.

Don't you know they'd love to get as many people as they can taking this drug as soon as possible. Sponsoring a show like this is one way to get their proverbial fingers in the wallets and purses of Mr. and Mrs. Fat America!

While the rules of public television prevent GSK from mentioning their new weight loss drug as part of their sponsorship, that hasn't stopped them from talking about obesity in suspiciously generic terms on their web site. With an image of a measuring tape beneath an article called "Obesity: Why Weight Matters," the link to "Find out more about obesity" takes you to a page full of a bunch of statistics about obesity without providing any real solutions (just like the documentary itself they are sponsoring!).

It's basically setting up a straw man argument that SOMETHING really needs to be done about obesity or else it'll keep getting worse and worse in the years to come. Hmmm, I wonder what we can do about all of this?! Does this sponsor GSK have an answer for us? Ding ding ding, oh that's right! Maybe I'll try "Alli" the next time I'm shopping at the pharmacy.

Sneaky, sneaky, sneaky is all I have to say about this. I take that back--it's SICKO! Unscrupulous for a company like that pushing their name out there in the hopes of selling a few of these diet pills! And what the heck is PBS doing taking money from a company like GSK?! Are they completely out of their minds? Talk about your conflict of interest!

Of course, PBS is denying any wrongdoing here stating that GSK as an underwriter has no control over any of the programming itself. While that may be true, the indelible connection between the content of this series (obesity) and the drug being peddled to address that subject matter ("Alli") is very conspicuous to say the least. Why else would GSK be a "major sponsor," hmmmm?

If this were ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox or any other television network that looks for paid advertisers to sponsor shows that meet their demographics, then it wouldn't be such a big deal. But we are talking about public television and there is a clear line of distinction that has no business being crossed.

The company producing this series, Twin Cities Public Television, has remained silent about this controversy surrounding GSK's sponsorship, but PBS has not. They issued the following statement regarding their position in this matter:

"PBS and The Corporation for Public Broadcasting provided the initial production funding for 'FAT: What No One is Telling You' through its 'Program Challenge Fund,' which also included a grant for an educational community outreach initiative. Production on 'FAT: What No One is Telling You' began in October 2005 and was nearing the end of production when the corporate sponsor, GlaxoSmithKline, came on board in January 2006 and provided additional funding for the broadcast, community outreach and Spanish language translation. As is always the case with corporate funders of PBS programs, at no time did the corporate sponsor have any editorial input into the show, nor have they seen it, and this strict separation was maintained throughout production. Lastly, the sponsor credit for GlaxoSmithKline is a corporate image spot and does not mention any drug product, including those used to treat obesity. 'FAT: What No One is Telling You' premieres April 11, 2007 on PBS."

Oh enough with the corporate speak here! You don't need a product to be mentioned in order to know why GSK is sponsoring this show?! It's just like what happened with this Super Bowl ad by King Pharmaceuticals that didn't mention a specific drug either, but they certainly benefitted from the exposure they received from their commercial.

Let's just call a spade a spade and be done with it. GSK is trying to sell their drug "Alli" and thought they could get away with this soft sponsorship of an obesity series. But I don't think they should be able to get away with it. We need to let PBS know how we feel about this and tell them they are wrong to accept money from GlaxoSmithKline.

Use this feedback form and let them know how you feel about a major pharmaceutical company with a weight loss drug to peddle sponsoring the program "FAT: What No One is Telling You." Be respectful, but firm in your conviction about this and share how unethical it is for public television to take money for this purpose.

Of course, I'd love to know what you think about this issue. Is PBS right to take the money and is GSK just doing a good-natured act of corporate responsibility? Or do you agree with me that this stinks to high heaven? Make your voice heard!

2-17-07 UPDATE: Now here's a unique perspective sent by one of my readers who is a long-time public television industry veteran.

Jimmy: I appreciate the idealism of your concern about who is allowed to sponsor which programs on PBS or NPR. The appearance of a "tainted relationship" is a very real concern of public broadcasters.

As a 40+-year veteran of public broadcasting, I can empathize but not concur with you. I know full well the hazards of inappropriate sponsorships but more than that, I know how difficult it is to get funding for any programming, no matter its hoped for popularity. I thought your quote taken from Twin Cities Public TV explained the situation very well.

What is not explained in criticisms of underwriting on public media is the context for funding and how precarious and difficult it is to obtain funding and how many different sources a producer has to tap and how many years it takes before having the funds to do a quality job.

Most people do not know that the majority of what public broadcasting does is not what is seen on its broadcast channel (redistributed on cable and satellite). There is a host of other distribution channels for education, training and outreach to target communities far in excess of that one channel.

So a producer must not only develop funding for the production of a program but also have the resources to market the program to all potential audiences, create publications and web sites to further provide the large amount of information necessary to truly inform people on the subject matter and provide funding for local outreach to target audiences which allows local people and organizations to contact target community organizations and groups that can make the best use of the information contained in the program itself and available in other forms, mostly free for the asking.

At best, ten (10%) percent of the American public voluntarily donate to public broadcasting. There is a large variety of other sources from whom a producer must aggregate funding to make production possible. Federal funding accounts for about 13% of funding for operations including production and most of that goes directly to local stations. The rest comes from states, underwriters (sponsors), non-profit partners, auctions and miscellaneous contributors.

There are and have been efforts over the years to create a Trust Fund that would throw off enough annual interest to fund productions free from any funder's potential for influence. That has remained a dream as a result, in part, of the pressures created by commentaries from the worlds of political and special interests.

You are cautious to question the potential influence of funders but there has been no shortage of "wanna be influentials" who would like to control content on public broadcasting. Bottom line, in my now 40+ years experience with public broadcasting at every level, I have yet to see it happen, and more to the point, have been witness to and directly involved in fierce resistance to those who would try to leverage editorial influence over program content.

THANK YOU for taking the time to share your actual experiences working in public television for four decades. We can only hope the past will continue to be an accurate predictor of the present and future. THANKS again!

2-17-07 UPDATE: The blog truefilm picked up on this story and quoted my post about this subject. They point to another example of this happening with Johnson & Johnson sponsoring a documentary releasing February 21st about inflammatory diseases called Innerstate. Guess what Johnson & Johnson makes that could help with inflammatory diseases? If these people were even TRYING to hide what they are doing, it would be one thing. But it doesn't look like they are concealing their motives at all!

2-18-07 UPDATE: PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler has now responded to the concerns about GlaxoSmithKline sponsoring this documentary about fat. Here's an excerpt of what he wrote:

"I sympathize with PBS’s constant search for funding, the difficulty of finding sponsorships to bolster more traditional funding, and that fact that some funders simply have an interest in seeing subjects aired and are willing to take their chances on how the program will come out. But in this case, there is little doubt how a program about obesity is going to turn out. Even though GlaxoSmithKline came in late and, under PBS policy, has no say in any of the content, this kind of possible conflict can undermine credibility and, without knowing the financial details, doesn’t seem worth it."

Nevertheless, the primary producer of "Fat: What No One Is Telling You" named Richard Dechert reacted to Getler's statement with the following:

Michael, thank you for your comprehensive critique of this ongoing "hot button" funding issue. As a longtime staffer at Twin Cities Public Television, the primary producer of "FAT: What No One Is Telling You," and as a longtime media-reform activist with national and local organizations, I have perspectives on the issue that few others have been able to develop. A key perspective is this:

Individuals and organizations who rightfully decry the increasing commercialization of PBS, NPR or any other federally funded programming must take even more vigorous and sustained action to prevent further cuts in Presidential, Congressional, and state support for public TV and radio, and to champion alternatives ways of supporting and improving their vital services--including an independent, self-sustaining national trust fund.

Public broadcasters have long-supported such alternatives, but all of them have been "DOA" in the Congress--with a lack of effective support from anti-commercialization activists being a major lethal factor. Sadly, from what I've been able to observe so far, the furor over "FAT" is on its way to being another dead-end case in point.

Dechert also contacted me about my blog post on this issue.


As a progressive media activist, one of my roles has been to tell my activist colleagues when they haven't done their "homework" in slamming public TV or radio. In your following critique you say:

--"From what I can see, the filmmakers are mainly going to highlight the problem rather than seek out solutions to the obesity epidemic. That's not really my concern, but it is an interesting sidebar. (Why examine a problem in a series of shows on public television if you aren't going to offer suggestions about how to address that problem?. . . ."

Clearly, you failed to do your "homework" in carefully reviewing the Web links on the "Take One More Step" Web site. If you had you would know that the multi-media package of on-air, online, and community-based services for both "Heart" and "Fat" is modeled after Twin Cities Public Television's (tpt's) 2004 Primetime Emmy Award winning package for "The Forgetting: A Portrait of Alzheimer's." PBS lauded it for having the most powerful impact of all the shows it aired in its 2003-2004 national schedule. And tpt's senior producer for "Alzheimer's," Naomi Boak, is "FAT"'s senior producer. You can easily review that and many other National Production awards by clicking here.

--Among your several charges you also say: "Is PBS right to take the money and is GSK just doing a good-natured act of corporate responsibility? Or do you agree with me that this stinks to high heaven?. . ."

"Alzheimer's" also had a single corporate-financed funder, the MetLife Foundation, whose parent company is a major commercial provider of health care, disability and other related insurance and financial-planning services. Its underwriting of this production complied with the same PBS rules that governed "FAT's" production.

So, Jimmy, tell me how that underwriting "stinks"--or more appropriately how it adversely influenced "Alzheimer's." And when you've finally completed your pre-broadcast "homework," actually watched the show, then determined its national impact, competently answer the same question for "FAT." Conspiratorial fantasy is an unacceptable "homework" substitute for social reality.

I responded to these questions and concerns with the following.

THANKS for sharing your concern, Richard, and I certain sympathize with you about the funding. It is a MAJOR issue indeed which makes these corporate sponsorships all the more disconcerting. I know you have to do what you can to raise the dollars necessary and I certainly don't blame Twin Cities for finding a way to get their program on the air.

Don't get me wrong, I am looking forward to seeing what you have come up with and will probably find the documentary to be quite compelling. But it does make me wonder what all those viewers who see GSK's sponsorship will think when the series is finished. As someone who advocates a natural approach to weight loss, this is very disturbing to me.

THANK YOU again for sharing your thoughts with me.

Anyone else have a comment to share about this?

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Blogger Scott Kustes said...

As a guy with two business degrees, I can tell you that there's little of "good-natured" thought in this kind of funding. Nearly every bit of corporate philanthropy is with the express desire of a) good press or b) more business or c) both. This is an opportunity to showcase their new product and get people hooked. That's not to say I'm a "down with corporate, all corporations suck" thinker. But let's get real...a corporation exists for one reason: making money for shareholders. Any action that does not pursue that goal is a disservice to the shareholders.

I shared my views with PBS. Thanks for bringing this to light Jimmy.

2/16/2007 8:41 AM  
Blogger Jimmy Moore said...

From a "business" standpoint, Scott, I agree that a business has a right to do whatever they can to make money for themselves and their shareholders. That's capitalism and the American way!

But this is an entirely different issue altogether. As I stated in my column, a company like GSK has absolutely NO business sponsoring a program on the public television airwaves that they have a vested interest in.

I'm glad you contacted PBS and I urge many more to do the same.

2/16/2007 9:20 AM  
Blogger Scott Kustes said...

Oh, don't misunderstand what I said. But they do have "business" sponsoring it from the moneymaking standpoint. It is up to us, the public, to make these kinds of actions a negative to their bottomline rather than the positive they hope for. I was explaining their rationale, not condoning it.

2/16/2007 9:42 AM  
Blogger Science4u1959 said...

It would be fantastic if we -all of us- could "educate" businesses that honesty and truth in the long-term will better their cause and profit margins. I truly believe that Jimmy is doing exactly this: by continuously exposing the fallacies and misinformations, the lies and deceptions, he not only educates the (potential) consumer (read: unsuspecting victims) of such detrimental products but in the meantime teaches such companies a lesson or two about honesty and fair business practices. It even might have some sort of Sarbanes-Oxley effect: instigate, through market forces, honesty in marketing practices - all without (God forbid) more Government interference.

The bottom line is that in the end, we will all benefit from both the former and the latter.

2/17/2007 9:43 PM  

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