May
01
2012

PBS Responds on Dow-Funded Series

PBS ombud Michael Getler (4/27/12) agrees that the Dow Chemical Corporation's sponsorship of a PBS series violates PBS underwriting guidelines. PBS, unfortunately, stands by its show.

A FAIR Action Alert (4/23/12) pointed out that the decision to allow Dow to sponsor the series America Revealed, which deals with issues that closely track Dow's business interests, flies in the face of PBS funding guidelines. Noting that he had received some 500 messages inspired by the alert, Getler agreed, saying that "the points raised by FAIR were fair ones, in my view, and many of the letters were quite comprehensive in their criticisms."

The main problem with the funding arrangement, as Getler sees it, is that it fails the PBS "perception test," which warns against allowing underwriting if viewers might "perceive that the underwriter has exercised editorial control." As PBS puts it:

When there exists a clear and direct connection between the interests or products or services of a proposed funder and the subject matter of the program, the proposed funding will be deemed unacceptable regardless of the funder's actual compliance with the editorial control provisions of this policy.

Actual editorial involvement in the program is a separate test; in this scenario, the perception of a connection is enough.

Getler wrote that

it would indeed be surprising if "a significant portion" of viewers, whether they write to me or not, or subscribe to FAIR or not, would not make some connection with Dow, its full range of operations, and the plus-side of this series. It took about 30 seconds for that to pop into my head as a viewer.

PBS, which has given corporate underwriters a pass several times over the years (FAIR Press Release, 4/3/02), does not think so. In response to several questions from Getler, PBS defended Dow's sponsorship. They pointed out that the company has sponsored other programming, including An Evening With Smokey Robinson. They also revealed that Dow was approached by station WGBH to sponsor the show. And PBS argued that it "did not consider that Dow's business interests were so close to the actual content of the program as to make it an unacceptable funder."

As FAIR pointed out in the alert--and Getler agreed in his column--it would not be hard for an alert viewer to make a connection between Dow's interests and the program it was sponsoring. One segment touted genetically modified corn, a controversial product made by Dow, as a "game changer" for agriculture; the four parts of the series (agriculture, transportation, energy and manufacturing) perfectly matched the four areas of business Dow touts on its website.

PBS stressed that Dow was not involved editorially in the program. That may indeed be the case. It is also irrelevant, in that their perception test does not require such a direct link.

As the PBS guidelines make clear:

Should a significant number of reasonable viewers conclude that PBS has sold its professionalism and independence to its program funders, whether or not their conclusions are justified, then the entire program service of public television will be suspect and the goal of serving the public will be unachievable.

If those words mean something to PBS, then the only logical conclusion to draw is that it believes the significant number of viewers who are troubled by Dow's sponsorship are unreasonable.

FAIR thanks the hundreds of activists who wrote to PBS, and Michael Getler for taking their concerns seriously.