Articles

Shame on PBS!

I used to have a high opinion of PBS. They ran excellent programs like Nova and Masterpiece Theatre and I felt I could count on finding good programming when I tuned into my local PBS channel. No more.

It was bad enough when they started featuring Deepak Chopra, self-help programs, and “create your own reality” New Age philosophy, but at least it was obvious what those programs were about. What is really frightening is that now they are running programs for fringe medical claims and they are allowing viewers to believe that they are hearing cutting edge science.

Neurologist Robert Burton has written excellent articles for salon.com pointing out the questionable science presented by doctors Daniel Amen and Mark Hyman in their PBS programs. Please click on the links and read what he wrote. These programs are being shown during fundraising drives as if they were examples of the best PBS has to offer.

Several people (myself included) protested to our local stations and to the PBS ombudsman. The ombudsman basically said those are not PBS programs and the local stations choose whether to run them. PBS doesn’t take any responsibility for their content – but how are viewers to know that? There is no disclaimer, and the PBS logo has sometimes appeared on the screen during these programs.

PBS is providing airtime to fringe practitioners for what amounts to infomercials. They are lending their cachet to ideas that are not accepted by mainstream science, and they are not giving their viewers any clue that these ideas are not generally accepted.

One commenter on the salon.com website said, “I worked at a PBS station in Tampa for several years and I can tell you the reason they run that crap – it’s because it pays the bills. Unlike every other show on the station (like Nova and American Experience) the station gets a check when the show airs instead of having to pay to air it.” If this is true, it is reprehensible.

If PBS really wanted to support good science, it would not air these infomercials. If it insists on airing them, it should at least provide a disclaimer and make it clear that the programs are not endorsed by PBS.

Burton says,

Apparently PBS’s mission is to raise money by exploiting viewers’ gullibility at the expense of trustworthy programming. If so, it has achieved its goal — and undermined the central reason for having educational TV in the first place

Shame on you, PBS!

If you want to join the letter writing campaign, you can write your local station, citing Dr. Burton’s articles, and contact the PBS ombudsman.

Posted in: Science and the Media

Leave a Comment (23) ↓

23 thoughts on “Shame on PBS!

  1. wertys says:

    Another example of the power of Big Woo in the media ….

  2. Jules says:

    One commenter on the salon.com website said, “I worked at a PBS station in Tampa for several years and I can tell you the reason they run that crap – it’s because it pays the bills. Unlike every other show on the station (like Nova and American Experience) the station gets a check when the show airs instead of having to pay to air it.” If this is true, it is reprehensible

    Yeah, but what are you going to do (besides encouraging all of your friends to donate to PBS)? If the station doesn’t get any money, it can’t run anything at all. PBS relies on public donations, and apparently this crap is what the public is willing to pay to see. I don’t see how writing to PBS is going to change this fact. If you really want to change things, write to the NSF, NASA,NIH, CDC, whatever science agency is out there, and tell them to increase funding for PBS so that they can afford to run legitimate science pieces rather than Suze Orlman schlock (she’s actually a bigger pet peeve of mine).

  3. dmmaxwell says:

    Once, I was watching an episode of Curious George with my daughter on PBS. I was surprised to find that in the live action segment at the end of the episode, they had the kids visit a naturopath to learn about medicine. Luckily, it turned into a good chance to teach my daughter a little bit about medicine and doctors in general. (Not to mention the proper use of inappropriate language…)

    PBS’s leaning toward woo is not confined to it’s selection of infomercials. It’s in the mainstream programming, too. Aside from a few shows like “Word Girl” and “Fetch: with Ruff Ruffman”, I’ve all but written off PBS. I don’t watch much TV at all, myself.

    Are there any good shows on PBS anymore?

  4. David Gorski says:

    Harriet,

    I was flipping channels on Sunday and I came across the very same crap you’re blogging about. I was very disturbed, disturbed enough to watch a bit of the infomercial. It was truly embarrassing. My wife actually came up with a particularly insightful comment about one of the presentations (I forget if it was Amen’s or Hyman’s). She said it reminded her of The Secret; i.e. the subtext seemed to be that wishing for a better brain makes it so.

  5. Rogue Medic says:

    I don’t disagree with you. I don’t even watch broadcast TV anymore. An irony is that the Google ads on the side bar are all for alternative medicine quackery, too.

    We need to teach our children to discriminate among all of the information they are presented with. we need to teach them to apply the scientific method strictly, not the way Dr. Reuben did. Bad science is not science, unless it is Ben Goldacre’s blog. :-)

  6. LovleAnjel says:

    It’s not just that. I saw a program on yoga and thinking it was a normal one I tuned in…it was the instructors talking about how great their classes were and all New Age ‘energy’ crap! I don’t want to pay PBS so they can tell who to pay to do yoga, I can watch any cable station before 6am to get that.

  7. vannin says:

    I stopped sending money to my local PBS station during the first gulf war when they stopped showing Blackadder mid-series because they thought that the anti-war message might be seen as “offensive to some viewers”. Which really means that they might lose money, and it is all about money, hence the willingness to show the new age stuff which pays.

  8. DevoutCatalyst says:

    The problem seems to be mostly at the local level. I can’t receive any over-the-air tv, nor do I have pay tv, so I watch PBS directly from their satellite feeds on AMC-21; not only do you get to see stuff your local stations might not pick up, the picture quality is astonishing.

    When it comes to donating, I still had to pick an affiliate station to support, however.

  9. Fredeliot2 says:

    This is a subject that has produced many heated discussions within PBS and affiliated stations. While an occasional complaint might not bring about a change, a number of them may eventually tip the balance of sanity vs. money. Constructive ideas concerning other ways of raising money or producing quality programming at lower cost would be most helpful.

  10. Joe says:

    Rogue Medic on 17 Mar 2009 at 10:25 am wrote “… I don’t even watch broadcast TV anymore. An irony is that the Google ads on the side bar are all for alternative medicine quackery, too.”

    I have enjoyed the fact that quacks support this blog via their Google ads. I think it costs them more if we click on them; but I am chicken to visit sites that may be infected.

  11. daniel says:

    Perhaps PBS should be required to label the shows that it is being paid to broadcast.

  12. bob_calder says:

    I saw a five element secret brain improvement infomercial on WPBT Channel 2 in Miami on Sunday. I was repulsed. For the record, I don’t believe that a station in either Miami or Tampa are likely to be particularly hard up for funds. These are two of the largest cities in Florida.

  13. Calli Arcale says:

    You might need to define “paid to broadcast”, because sometimes commercial entities will provide funding specifically for the broadcast of particular programs in order to get PBS to air their commercial before it and not because of any particular affiliation with the program itself. For instance, our local affiliate, KTCA, used to run “Doctor Who”, and a large part of the funding to do so came from a few corporate sponsors who happened to be run by Whovians. Not coincidentally, they were also sponsoring other great British programming, such as Monty Python, as there is a lot of crossover among the fans. And also not coincidentally, KTCA stopped airing most of those programs at about the same time.

    I gave up on PBS about the time KTCA stopped running shows that I actually liked to watch. I got interested in them again when they started airing Doctor Who again in the 90s (following an intense letter-writing campaign and a highly successful pledge drive during “Red Dwarf” that indicated the desire for quality science fiction programming), but the idiots in charge apparently decided that the best timeslot for a British children’s television show was 5:30AM and 11:30PM on Sunday. To nobody’s surprise, this timeslot was not very successful, and they pulled it again after a season. Very sad.

    PBS just isn’t what it used to be. Maybe it’s largely because of funding; it seemed to go downhill about the same time it started to run actual commercials for its sponsors. Give it enough time, and PBS will be an infomercial house.

  14. Kimbo Jones says:

    Even if they aren’t in charge of deciding whether or not the programs are run on local stations, I would think they would want to distance themselves from it as much as possible and make it clear that it is not their chosen programming. Or at least implement some sort of standard – for example, programs not directly affiliated with them can only be shown during certain hours and/or must be accompanied by disclaimers – something.

    It’s annoying (understatement) that they allow these programs, but it’s alarming that they are content to say “not us” and dust of their hands rather than take some responsibility.

  15. badrescher says:

    I am SO glad to see some talk about Amen. That twit just does not get enough exposure in the skepticsphere.

    More! More!

  16. mandydax says:

    It’s like hearing about the death of an old friend who’s become more of an acquaintance. :( This quackery is a cancer, and it also is only likely to grow worse without real treatment.

    He claims to be able to diagnose and prevent the disease. Isn’t that directly opposed to the Quack Miranda? Can the FDA do nothing about this?

  17. Harriet Hall says:

    badrescher,

    Actually, Amen does get a lot of skeptical exposure. Google for “Daniel Amen” and the skeptical article I wrote for Quackwatch pops up right after the Amen website itself. http://www.quackwatch.org/06ResearchProjects/amen.html

    The same article comes up no. 6 if you google for “SPECT”
    Wikipedia’s article on Daniel Amen has a section on criticism citing me and Dr. Burton.
    Even the Skeptic’s Dictionary critiques Amen at http://www.skepdic.com/skeptimedia/skeptimedia30.html

    I’m encouraged that anyone searching the Internet for information on Amen will almost certainly find these critiques; I guess it’s never enough, though…

  18. joel_grant says:

    Dr. Hyman has replied to the Salon article:

    http://www.salon.com/env/feature/2009/03/18/mark_hyman_response/index.html

    I think a subscription may be required or you might have to watch a video commercial. Not sure, but Mark Hyman has responded and Dr. Burton has a brief response to the response.

    Perhaps someone could goad Dr. Hyman into replying to Dr. Hall’s article.

  19. sandman says:

    I was initially disturbed that Salon had granted Hyman the space to reply but it has turned out to be a wise strategy – from the first line, he comes off as a charlatan and narcissist. His thinking is so disordered, his self-absorption so complete, that he can’t perceive how devoid of reason his pronouncements are, how tenuous his conclusions, how exaggerated his self-image. Einstein, indeed. Salon handed him the rope and he fashioned his own noose. I can imagine Dr. Burton whispering to a Salon colleague, “the Lord hath delivered him unto my hand.”

  20. tmac57 says:

    Thank you Dr. Hall!!!
    Finally someone is speaking publicly about what I have been so disgusted with for the last several years.
    I have all but stopped watching PBS , and stopped sending them money due to the poor content. Sadly , the really good shows that are still there are suffering the consequences of the shortsightedness of the people responsible for this claptrap.

  21. yeahsurewhatever says:

    “PBS is providing airtime to fringe practitioners for what amounts to infomercials. They are lending their cachet to ideas that are not accepted by mainstream science, and they are not giving their viewers any clue that these ideas are not generally accepted.”

    From Wikipedia:

    Unlike the model of America’s commercial television networks, in which affiliates give up portions of their local advertising airtime in exchange for network programming, PBS member stations pay substantial fees for the shows acquired and distributed by the national organization.

    To be a PBS affiliate, a station must air a bare minimum of PBS programming, but beyond that they are left to their own devices. When it comes to the fund-raising in particular, they are raising funds to buy more PBS programming. So if anything, you can interpret what they show during that time to mean “this is what we’ll show if you don’t pay for the good stuff” rather than “give us money and you’ll get more of this”.

Comments are closed.