IIB. Perception Test

Public television, comprised of free and independent noncommercial broadcasters, provides a program service resulting from good faith professional judgments that are free from inappropriate restraints or controls. This commitment has enabled public television to earn the trust and respect of its viewers. Therefore, PBS must guard against the public perception that editorial control might have been exercised by program funders.

One of public television’s objectives is to be accepted by the public as a free and independent broadcast enterprise, and to sustain that acceptance through the quality and integrity of its programming. Only if so regarded can public television maintain the confidence of its viewers -- a confidence that is essential if public television is to accomplish the goal of serving the public with a program service that is enriching and enlightening. Therefore, even if the public television professionals know that programs have not been inappropriately influenced by program funders and therefore would be acceptable under the editorial control principles set forth above, steps must also be taken to avoid the public perception that program funders have influenced professional judgments. 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.

As PBS has matured and established a reputation for independence and integrity, it has been able to exercise increased latitude with respect to the perception test. However, there will still be cases where a clear and direct connection between the products, services or other interests of a proposed funder and the subject matter of the program would be likely to lead a significant portion of the public to conclude that the program has been influenced by that funder.*

In general, the perception test will be applied most vigorously to current affairs programs and programs that address controversial issues. In these cases, 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.

In some cases, the joining of a problematic funder with one or more neutral funders may make the problematic funder acceptable, as any perception that it may have exercised content control would be mitigated by the presence of the other funders.**. In such cases, the problematic funder should be a minority rather than a majority funder, and should be credited as such. Caution should be exercised to ensure that the mitigating effect of multiple funding arrangements is not offset by advertising or promotion by the producer or underwriter that would tend to suggest sole or primary funding by the problematic underwriter.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect in administering these guidelines is the question of the possible public perception of editorial involvement and the direct and immediate interests of the funder in the subject matter. Each situation is unique and requires careful, thorough analysis.

The most important factor to be considered is the character and directness of the perceived connection between the program funder and the subject matter of the program. For the purpose of this analysis, the subject of a program will be considered to be those subjects and issues which a program might reasonably be expected to cover -- not simply those subjects that are actually covered or proposed to be covered. In assessing the potential impact on the public of a perceived connection, various other factors will be considered as well. For example, the reputation of a continuing program series; the type and number of funders; the actual funding arrangements; the existence, character and role of any independent panel of experts; any on-air disclaimer; whether or not the program was produced before the funding relationship was established; and any other factors that may appear to be relevant to the circumstance.

PBS's consideration of issues of perceived editorial control also includes arrangements for ancillary rights made prior to PBS distribution. Pre-broadcast sales of ancillary rights to bona fide program distributors (or other entities such as publishers) with an established business interest in the exploitation of ancillary rights is not ordinarily a matter for concern. However, ancillary rights arrangements with entities that are not normally in the distribution business can create the perception that the rights purchaser may have an editorial interest in the content of the program, and may therefore have inappropriately influenced the content of that program. If the purchaser of such rights has, or could be perceived to have, the kind of direct or immediate interest in the content of the program that would be unacceptable if the purchaser were seeking to underwrite the program, then the program will not be accepted for distribution.

Similarly, the perception of inappropriate editorial influence can also be created by the provision of in-kind goods and services to a production by a party that has, or could be perceived to have, the sort of direct or immediate interest in the content of a program that would be unacceptable if the party were seeking to underwrite the program.

Thus, upon offering a program to PBS, in addition to providing information about the funders of the program, it is the responsibility of the program producer/presenter to disclose to PBS any arrangements for ancillary rights or in-kind goods and services, made either orally or in writing, with any entity that has, or could be perceived to have, any direct or immediate interest in the content of the program.

The perception of editorial control can also occur when underwriters seek to fund only selected programs within a series. Therefore, in general, programs within a current affairs or controversial issues series must be treated as a single unit, funding must be sought for the series as a whole rather than for individual episodes, and funders must be credited for the run of the series and must not vary from program to program. This is to avoid situations where an underwriter seeks, or would appear to seek, to fund only that part of a series in which it has a particular interest, or may offer to fund one part of a series in order to ensure production of some other part for which such funding would be unacceptable due to a direct interest of the funder in the subject matter. As a general rule, a funder that would not be acceptable for any single program in a series would not be acceptable to fund any other part of the same series.

There can be exceptions to this rule: For example, an anthology series might incorporate diverse acquisitions, each funded independently of the umbrella anthology and with each crediting its own set of funders (but with all episodes crediting the funder of the umbrella series). In another case, additional funds may be received after a series begins and the funder may be credited on only the remaining programs in the series. However, PBS must approve in advance any such exceptions.***

The following examples are offered to further illustrate the application of the perception test:

  • A long-standing series of debates, accepted by the public as having an unassailable reputation, could be funded by a corporation that might have a stake in one or more of the individual subjects debated. Here, the credibility of the series has been established and the debate format is less susceptible to manipulation than other formats.

  • A series of documentaries, interviews, and commentary on the subject of drug abuse would not be accepted if funded by a special purpose nonprofit corporation whose principal mission is to foster the understanding of drug-related community programs, even if the series proposal suggests that it will not deal with the more controversial aspects of drug abuse and its proposed solutions. A reasonable segment of the informed public might readily conclude that the series was funded in order to foster the views and objectives of the program funder.

  • Similarly, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to eradicate heart disease or to raise money for leukemia research could not fund a program designed to educate the public about these respective illnesses. Again, even though the program may not contain controversial subject matter, and even though there might be few who would criticize the goals of these organizations, a reasonable segment of the public might readily conclude that the program was created solely to promote the interests of the funder.

  • A Jewish social welfare organization could not fund a documentary on a prominent Nazi figure. The inherently controversial nature of the program, along with the organization's presumed direct interest and stake in the subject matter, combine to make this underwriting arrangement unacceptable. Again, the public might readily conclude that the program was created to foster the views and objectives of the funder.

  • Conversely, a major oil company could be the sole funder of a three-part documentary examining the American presidency from early times to the present. Here, the format of the program does not lend itself to any perception of manipulation by the funder, the program has a strong historical focus, and although an oil company does have an interest or stake in administration policy, any reference to or coverage of energy issues would be minor and incidental to an examination of the office of the presidency.

* For these purposes, a corporate foundation -- that is, one funded with revenues from the corporate parent and answerable in some way to the parent -- is considered to have the same business or other interests as the parent corporation.

** It should be noted, however, that some funders will be too problematic under any circumstance to be deemed acceptable -- even as one of multiple funders.

*** When the additional contribution is received after the series begins and is small relative to the entire program budget, a producer may be permitted to credit the new funder on only a fixed block of episodes, even though the series may be repeated at a future date. This may also be permitted where there is little risk that viewers would perceive that unacceptable control had been exercised by the additional funder.