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Gary Null special sparks debate on pledge program standards

Originally published in Current, Jan. 25, 1999
By Karen Everhart Bedford

A December pledge special featuring nutritionist/healer Gary Null prompted a reexamination of public TV's standards for fundraising programs, and raised questions about whether stations have become too dependent on the emotional kick from self-help personalities to hype their pledge totals.

Following the resounding success of Suze Orman's personal finance special — which raised top dollars in the March and August 1998 fund drives — Null's "How to Live Forever" livened up what turned out to be a slow December fundraiser for many stations. PBS's final pledge totals for the December drive showed that nationally stations raised nearly $31.5 million, an increase of just 1.8 percent over the December 1997 drive.

When coupled with in-studio appearances by Null during pledge breaks, "How to Live Forever by Gary Null" raised whopping amounts for many stations: $800,000 for WNET in New York and $217,000 for WLIW on Long Island; $346,299 for WTVS in Detroit; and $234,465 for WETA in Washington.

Nationally, "How to Live Forever" raised more than $4 million for some 34 stations, according to pledge maven Jim Scalem, former PBS pledgemeister and now production exec with MPI, which produced the special. Through American Public Television (formerly APS), MPI plans to release another special for March pledge, "Get Healthy Now! With Gary Null."

Following closely on the heels of Null's December success, an e-mail exchange among g.m.'s highlighted doubts about self-help specials, a major source of revenue for public broadcast stations. The discussion was leaked to the Washington Post, and became the basis of a front-page story Dec. 26.

"Are the 'gurus of the month' using our air to hawk snake oil, or are they cutting edge, New Age thinkers leading the way into the next century?," wrote Ted Krichels, g.m. of KBDI in Denver, stating the quandary in an e-mail that was quoted in the Post. "Do we care as long as we get our cut? Given the convoluted economic base of our system, do we have the luxury of caring?"

Among the executives expressing discomfort with program standards at pledge time was PBS President Ervin Duggan. He recalled hearing from a woman whose friend had stopped chemotherapy after watching a Deepak Chopra special on spiritual healing. "Such travesties," Duggan wrote, "... intensified my already-intense concern that we lack clear standards about what we put on our air when our desire is to raise money."

"What does it mean--to our audience, not us--if we adhere to such standards in one part of our schedule and abandon them in another?" Duggan asked. "What does it profit us to honor science in Nova, only to open the door to quacks and charlatans" on pledge specials?

Many program directors and on-air fundraising pros say the self-help shows are an important and enduring part of the pledge mix.

"I take some exception with the idea that this kind of program is an aberration, not part of what we do, and will have a long-term effect on fundraising," said Scott Elliott, station manager of WCET in Cincinnati. "I don't think it will. We serve so many people in so many different ways--no one is out there watching all of our schedule, not even our staff."

"I think the concern expressed by station managers over Gary Null has to do, to an extent, with the fact that some stations aren't practicing best [fundraising] practices," said Michael Wallace, director of on-air fundraising for KPBS in San Diego. "You can have good breaks that sit well with people and managers and make money."

While some stations played the Null special repeatedly, KPBS is one of several that doesn't go gonzo for self-help specials: Keith York, program director, believes the genre is "made for radio, not for television." KPBS did air the Null special a couple of times as a "virtual pledge" event produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting, and did "fairly well" with it, according to York.

"The system had a pretty lame pledge period with no blockbusters," explained Warren Moss of KCPT in Kansas City. "There was nothing out there to put big numbers up there on the board for us." KCPT ran the Null special near the end of its drive. "Due to the lack of everything else, it was a desperation move to get the numbers."

"We'd obviously all love to pledge our regular schedule and return to the days when underwriting appeared as Helvetica [typeface] on a blue screen, but the times are 'a changing," Moss added.

After early reports that "How to Live Forever" was pledging well, KTCA Program Director Tom Holter reconsidered his initial rejection of the program and looked at the entire show. "I just said, 'No, I cannot put this on our air and feel good about this.' " Top KTCA executives — v.p.s Glenn Fisher and Bill Hanley and President Jim Pagliarini — discussed his decision and agreed with it.

"You can only take hyperbole so far," explained Holter. Null's "claims of helping people live forever or to 140 seemed appealing, but we couldn't, in any good conscience, stand behind it."

KTCA was the only major market station that did not air the Null special, according to Scalem.

It's OK because it's on PBS

Steve Bass, g.m. of WDCN in Nashville, who launched the e-mail exchange in the ordinarily confidential GM Chat on PBS Express last month, said his main objection to "How to Live Forever" was a production style that made the pledge special too similar to an infomercial. "You have to think through how much your credibility is worth," he said later in a discussion on NPR's On the Media, a weekly show produced by WNYC in New York. WDCN aired the special, but didn't raise much money with it.

Bass told Current what originally set him to worrying: he heard an outside pledge host on WDCN say something like, "You're probably hearing some real strange things on this program, but it's on the up-and-up because it's distributed by PBS."

The three-part program features Null delivering a lecture on his "anti-aging" advice, which he says can "knock five years off of your biological age" and eliminate diseases such as arthritis, heart disease and dementia. "What if I told you that 70 years is half of what you should be living?," he asks at the beginning of the program. During each segment, members of an appreciative studio audience deliver testimonials on the health benefits they've enjoyed through Null's program, including significant weight loss, and cures for bleeding ulcers, life-long allergies, depression and emphysema.

But while critics may have found Null's claims hard to swallow, others described his basic advice as benign. Null advises viewers to improve their health through diet and exercise, and says they can reduce stress by "staying in the present."

"So much of what he says in the show is not new news," said a pledge producer at a major market station. "He and Andrew Weil [an earlier pledge star with a Harvard medical degree] are not on different pages."

"A large part of the trouble" was in the pitching around the Null specials, contended Alan Foster, v.p. of fundraising programs for PBS, which acquired and distributed "How to Live Forever." While not "disowning" the program, PBS is developing criteria for fundaising programs, which may include hosts' credentials and professional publications, the nature of the subject, and validation by recognized experts. The object, according to Foster, is to "create some formal standards that have not really existed in the past."

"The difficulty of this thing is it's not as easy as black and white," he added. "Fundraising programming is entirely sensitive to the g.m. discussion of what strikes them as unseemly. Maybe the mandate to pledge producers needs to be more complex than 'raise the maximum dollars.'"

Concerns about the increasingly transactional nature of pledge — in which viewers call to acquire the premiums, not to support public TV — have heightened within the past year, led by the success of Suze Orman's "The Nine Steps to Financial Freedom." Orman raised more than $2.3 million for stations last March in a barnstorming tour of personal appearances at 21 stations. Her aggressive pitching style, honed through her experience selling books on QVC, resonated powerfully with viewers through two successive pledge drives, and set new expectations for the self-help genre.

"It created the realization that this may be a troubling trend," said Foster. "We've seen the future, and it is Suze."

Orman and Null return in March

For the near-term future at least, Foster's staff is carefully vetting self-help programs in the March pledge line-up. PBS plans to release to stations a detailed explanation of Suze Orman's credentials, which Forbes recently picked apart in its Dec. 28 magazine. Foster said he's "pretty confident" in the response, which will arm stations with information in advance of Orman's March pledge appearances associated with "The Courage to Be Rich," a new special based on her upcoming book.

In addition, "Wild About Herbs," a special on the uses of herbs that features naturalist Roger Tabor, is "very legitimate" and "doesn't make any extraordinary claims," Foster said.

As for the Gary Null special coming from APT, producers have designed the show in response to criticisms of the December special. A panel of board-certified M.D.s with experience in alternative therapies will review the script and the final program, and the names of panel members will be listed in on-screen credits. The panel was selected in consultation with Null, according to MPI's Scalem.

The program itself will feature field-produced "20/20-style" documentaries of case histories and examples of Null's work, instead of in-studio testimonials. In addition, doctors will appear on the program to deliver perspectives from the mainstream medical community on alternative therapies. "We are very aware of the concerns stations had with the first show," said Jan Goldstein, spokeswoman for APT. "That was absolutely part of the discussions we had" with MPI in crafting the new special.

APT will also be offering "virtual pledge" breaks to stations, and tickets to be used as premiums for Null's lecture tour planned for May and June. A new book sharing the "Get Healthy Now!" title reaches bookstores March 1.

Web page posted Jan. 23, 1999
Current: the newspaper about public TV and radio
in the United States
Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.

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Gary Null's website.