Feb 1 1997

How Low Can Public TV Go?

KQED's Adventures in the Infomercial Business

How much more of public television’s integrity can be sold off? A proposed documentary by San Francisco’s KQED–abandoned after its funding scheme was publicly exposed–provides a glimpse into a frightening future.

In April 1996, the station’s marketing department approached the Robert Mondavi Winery, suggesting various programs that the winery could sponsor. One option was a one-hour documentary that “celebrates the life of Robert Gerald Mondavi,” the winery’s founder and chair, focusing on his efforts to make Mondavi wine “one of the world’s most renowned labels.” The synopsis KQED presented to Mondavi was gushing: “We envision a program that conveys Mondavi’s innovative spirit, determination and leadership, all of which have made him a symbol of the finest his industry embodies…. This documentary will pay tribute to a remarkable man.”

Not surprisingly, the winery expressed an interest in sponsoring what sounded as if it would essentially be a one-hour infomercial for Mondavi and his wine. The station, however, apparently figured out that it couldn’t get away with such an obvious conflict of interest, so the proposed sponsorship was shifted to the American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts, a non-profit group funded by the Mondavi family.

But this switch hardly reduced the journalistic conflict. “Because Robert Mondavi is the founder and chairman of the American Center…and is devoting significant amount of time, energy and money to make his dream a reality, it seems appropriate that the center participate in this documentary,” a foundation executive wrote to KQED. Can public television officials really not understand why it is inappropriate for a foundation to fund a documentary about its founder and chair?

But conflict of interest scarcely seems to be a concern to KQED‘s fundraisers. The station sent a letter to the Mondavi’s chief marketer, looking for a “lead list” of people to hit up for additional money: “I suggest you look at a broad list of corporations and or heads of corporations that Bob [Mondavi] has had a long relationship with,” KQED‘s Jon Stephen Holman wrote. “Another area that could be developed are companies that the winery does business with. Of course, we would not want to overlook friends of the family, as well.” If the station was trying to develop a list of people who should not contribute to an independent documentary on Mondavi, this would be a good start.

KQED maintains that the self-interested financing of the documentary was not relevant, since the station maintained “editorial control.” In reality, it matters little who has editorial control of a project that was proposed and funded because it flatters the funder. But there is little evidence of any insulation between the American Center and the documentarians.

“We would like to discuss this project in greater detail to make sure that it is consistent with the Center’s mission and objectives,” the foundation’s president Clifford Adams wrote to KQED general manager Kevin Harris. “We would also like to have an opportunity to meet with the prospective executive producer.” There’s no doubt that a producer who expressed an interest in investigating Mondavi’s labor problems, for example, would have clashed with the center’s “mission and objectives.”

The whole distasteful project collapsed after Sasha Futran, elected to the KQED board on the Committee to Save KQED slate, took the matter to the public. But the station, while scuttling the project to mitigate a PR disaster, made it clear that no lessons had been learned: “The solicitation and receipt of the grant from the American Center did not violate any established principle of journalistic ethics applicable to public broadcasting,” the board declared in a resolution passed 22-2 on December 5. “Reputable and ethical newspapers, periodicals and commercial broadcasters regularly receive financial support–i.e., advertising revenue–from advertisers who are from time to time also the subject of editorial coverage. (To pick a single familiar example, newspapers and magazines regularly receive advertising revenue from motion pictures, while at the same time printing or broadcasting purportedly impartial reviews of those motion pictures.)”

Obviously, there’s no comparison between accepting advertising from an industry you cover and having your marketing department promise a flattering report on someone if they’ll give you money. But it’s dismaying that public television is even trying to claim it lives up to the standards of commercial journalism, when public TV is supposed to have higher standards.

Advertising does have an influence on the content of mainstream news, no matter how ethical individual journalists may try to be; those movie reviews may well be influenced by the fact that the features section depends on film ads to pay the bills. Independence from these sorts of commercial pressures is the essential justification for non-commercial broadcasting. When public stations are even more beholden to commercial sponsors than private ones are, why call it public TV at all?

KQED‘s address is 2601 Mariposa St., San Francisco, CA 94110.