Monday, July 1, 2013

Will Those PBS Infomercials Really Change Your Life?

PBS viewers once again last month had to endure another interminable “Pledge Drive” where its viewers are asked to make a contribution to support the programming they have come to like.

Even the detractors have to admit that especially with federal support of public broadcasting being cut back, the raising of money from viewers is a necessary evil.  But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a number of annoying things about these pledge drives that have drawn criticism over the years.

For one thing, some of their most appealing shows like for example, James Taylor and Carole King in concert are used to remind people that “shows like this” only appear on PBS and that they should be supported by contributions – but in reality “shows like this” almost never appear on the PBS schedule after the pledge drive programming is over.

And while it may be OK to subject people to this who have not contributed, the people who have contributed still have to suffer the endless disruptions to the normal schedule of shows.

But perhaps the biggest offender of the pledge drive is the growing use of the infomercial to raise money.  Infomercials (otherwise known as program length commercials) have long been a mainstay on much of commercial TV, especially on weekends and during the middle of the night.

Infomercials on commercial TV are subject to a number of regulations and disclaimers that are there to benefit the viewer.  For example, there is normally an announcement at the beginning of the infomercial that the following content is paid advertising and some channels will even point out that carrying the infomercial does not imply an endorsement of the product.

Commercials that show actors portraying users of a product or service show fine print saying “Actor Portrayal’ or something similar.  Diet commercials showing the before and after pictures will usually say “Results not typical”.  And the many commercials that hawk dietary supplements with claims of how they will improve your life always carry the fine print that “The FDA has not investigated these claims” along with the further clarification that the product in question is not intended to diagnose, treat or cure any disease. 

So while many viewers ignore the fine print in these ads, it is there for viewers who choose to pay attention.  But the infomercials on PBS apparently have no such restrictions – and this presents a problem for its viewers! 

Perhaps the PBS people may deny that the diet plans and medical advice on their program length presentations during pledge breaks are not infomercials.  But there are always the books or DVDs or supplements to buy which benefit the presenters either financially or at the very least with tremendous publicity for what they are promoting – so what else would you call them?

One of the infomercials that was run repeatedly was by Dr. Joel Fuhrman who advocates a diet centered on consuming the maximum amount of micronutrients.  A great deal of the presentation was about the before and after photos and stories of people who have been on his diet.  In addition, these productions (which are not produced by PBS) always show lots of audience close-ups with approving nods or faces in rapt attention to the speaker. 

But even if these before and after stories on the people they present are true, how typical are they?  There is no disclaimer that the results are not typical so we are led to presume that they are. In general, it is safe to say that the more restrictive a diet’s food choices are, the more difficult it is to stay on it.  So how many people have been able to stay for any length of time on what is essentially a vegan diet that discourages both meat and dairy?  In addition, the diet is said to not only promote weight loss, but there are also the claims of disease reversal and prevention. 

And then there is the infomercial by Dr. Daniel Amen who claims that by following his program that he can prevent Alzheimer’s disease!  That claim would do a better job of getting the attention of its senior viewers more that a whole evening of Lawrence Welk reruns!   

There has been some strong criticism of Dr. Fuhrman and Dr. Amen along with others by physicians practicing mainstream medicine who contend that many of the alternative medicine claims on these presentations have not been proven by way of peer-reviewed scientific research.  But that is almost beside the point!  The presentations on PBS which all seem to claim that they will change your life do not include any of the standard precautionary restraint seen on commercial stations’ infomercials.  And indeed during the breaks in the presentations, the presenter is in the studio to reinforce his or her sales pitch along with the PBS studio hosts often giving what appear to be their full throated endorsements of how great their guest is (along with presumably what he or she is selling). No buyer beware here!

So here we have supposedly non-commercial PBS not only crossing the line into blatant commercialism, but also misleading its viewers on what they are doing.  This is not a new complaint.  Interestingly, PBS hired someone to serve as an ‘ombudsman’ to field viewer comments and complaints along with providing an independent critique on PBS programming and practices.

This is from More Pledge Madness by PBS ombudsman Michael Getler written back in 2009.
…it is time to repeat some of the earlier points I've made, and viewers have made, and to ask PBS in stronger terms to clarify to viewers its role in some of the productions that appear on many PBS-affiliated member stations around the country during pledge drives and that ask people to contribute to their local stations and perhaps buy products associated with these pledge programs. 
And here is one of many letters in the link that have a similar sentiment.
Please stop airing the infomercials about "Doctors" and self-help gurus selling books about how (with the help of their book) life can be so much better. These seem to always be linked to fundraising.  I will not financially support PBS as long as these "educational" programs are part of the program offerings.  And yes, I am one of the minority of viewers who do financially support public broadcasting.  I do believe this is a question of editorial integrity. 
The conclusions here are obvious.  Either PBS had better get its act together soon on reining in these infomercials or it is going to suffer irreparable damage to its integrity and reputation.  And for an organization that relies on public donations to be able to continue on, this could eventually prove to be fatal!


Anonymous said...

Oh, Tony. Funny you should mention Dr. Joel Furman's dietary program.

During hospital recovery following one of my old dad's strokes or heart attacks in the past two years or so, I went to visit him down at Allegheny General. He was watching Dr. Furman's spiel. He insisted I call up WQED and order the $150 program for him on my credit card. Now, you have to realize what a lifelong skinflint my old dad has been, being a child of the depression.

I held off for a day, just to let him mull this idea over for a bit longer. Next day when I went to see him in the hospital he was livid when I admitted I'd not ordered the thing yet. He screamed at me, "I told you to order that for me! I WANT IT!!!" I said, "OK! You GOT it! I'm going home and calling those people up RIGHT NOW!" And that's exactly what I did.

I don't think he ever watched the DVDs or seriously attempted to conform to the diet. My brother went out and bought him a fancy $400 blender that makes steaming hot soup from fresh vegetables. I seriously doubt anybody ever watched the DVD instructions to learn how to use that thing either, and it's sitting over at his house while he deteriorates ever further in a nursing home.

But WQED and Dr. Furman got their money out of a very, very desperate old man.

- your friend Carol

sallyneary said...

Thank you, Tony. I found your blog when I typed "PBS all infomercials" into Google. I actually have followed some of the advice from those I call "the charlatans of PBS," especially Dr. Fuhrman's, and some of it is indeed helpful; by making the salad "the main dish" I was able to lose some weight successfully. What galls me is, as you mentioned, that the local PBS rep has to sit with each hawker of DVDs and suck up as though everything he or she promotes is gospel, even when some of the presenters are diametrically opposed to each other. And there are at least FOUR shows about fixing your brain, which I sum up as "The boomers are getting old."
I actually watch infomercials on other stations too, but it hadn't occurred to me that PBS lacks the disclaimers required of other stations until you mentioned it. I know they can't afford any actual entertainment anymore with the funding cuts but I would rather they put on reruns of Upstairs Downstairs from the 70s than this tidal wave of often-conflicting advice.