The Money Game

I’ve learned a lot about the “entertainment” industry in the process of creating our documentary Opening Our Eyes. But I was a bit surprised to learn how one show derives its content. I won’t mention specifics, because I don’t believe that this particular way of doing business is unique to this one show.

A couple of days ago, I received an email from one of the subjects in our film asking for my counsel about a high profile program that is syndicated on various cable channels. The show essentially does short segments on organizations and/or companies that have stories of educational value.

I looked through the electronic info kit that they had sent and it sounded great, because they guaranteed placement for the 5-6 minute piece within the program, which would run on a couple of large cable networks. They also guaranteed a 1- minute spot on CNN and Fox News. Plus the production company would deliver a file ready for web so that an organization could upload it to their site and/or deliver DVD’s to potential funders or clients.

I continued to read the attached PDF’s which listed the production requirements and workflow that would take place if “they” were selected to be profiled. But what stood out and surprised me was the line that stated that a payment of almost $30,000 would be required, if they were chosen to participate. Quite honestly, I was a bit shocked. Here was a production company that was creating a syndicated program and expecting the subjects to finance it.

I’m almost certain that this company also makes a hefty sum from the cable networks who in turn get money from their advertisers. That doesn’t surprise me a bit. But I didn’t know that it had become part of the game to make revenue off the subjects of the stories!

Perhaps that might not sound all that bad because it’s just business in a free economy, but quite honestly it has really changed my thinking about networks that run stories about people, organizations or institutions that have educational value. Now when I watch a show like this, I will question the credibility of the causes and organizations that are being profiled, because I know that this “door to distribution” is only open for those who can pay. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that the stories they run are about the most deserving subjects or even the most compelling stories. It simply means that the people behind these stories had the funds to “pay to play”.

I think back on all the extraordinary people that we met last summer while making our documentary. Most of them would be hard put to find this kind of money and if they did they would probably put it right back into their causes and the people they are trying to help – not a production company that is making money off both ends. I went in the “red” doing this documentary with the hopes that it will cause a shift in the way we think and that it will move people to action to make a difference in the world. I figured that’s the least I could do – use my skills as a storyteller to create a film that would raise awareness and help all our subjects and their programs.
Would I like to make money on this film? I’d be happy if I broke even. I’d be even happier if this film was seen by hundreds of thousands of people. But I wouldn’t dream of charging my subjects money.

Ronni Kahn of Oz Harvest told me “Just go out and do something – not for the money not for the recognition but for the sake of doing”. I suppose that’s exactly what Erin and I did. And that in itself has been the biggest reward of all.

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3 thoughts on “The Money Game

  1. Ed Lefkowicz November 2, 2011 / 4:23 pm

    Gail, I’m as surprised, and dismayed, as you are about this, even more dismayed than I am by commercials on PBS. (Those have kept me at a strong annoyance level for a while. It may yet rise to the dismay.) But why not name the program? It seems they’re is double-dipping, and it would be helpful to know who’s chips are going back in the dip bowl for seconds. Some public ire might not be misplaced. Shame on them.

  2. Victor Currie November 2, 2011 / 4:58 pm

    Hi Gail,
    There are several companies that are using this business model. Generally, they’re not receiving payment from the networks, but rather buying the time themselves.

    Back in the early 80s, I worked as a producer/reporter for a syndicated business show that did profiles of Fortune 500 executives (not charging them for the interviews) that would then inform them about other their other show which was a pay-for-profile syndicated show that aired in the morning hours of the top-20 markets. Back in those days it made a little more sense since there were so few outlets back then for businesses to get profiled (most often they were interested in making people aware of their stock).

    I got a laugh a few years ago when a company (likely the one you’re writing about) contacted me about profiling the motivation company I was COO of at the time. Their pitch was similar to what you describe. I asked if they had bothered to do any due diligence before calling since if they’d looked me up I had as much or more business television background then they did.

    The typical breakdown for something like that is about half going toward production and half toward buying airtime (generally in off-hours).

    It’s nothing new in the BTV world, but it’s also not something that I would recommend anyone spend money to be profiled on.

    -Victor

  3. Elaine Odell November 2, 2011 / 8:34 pm

    Do people (producers/networks) have no shame?! This kinda scam has been going on for years, both in print and electronic media. It’s no different from the payola scandals of music radio i.e. “pay to play.”

    I see this most often in things like “Best Lawyers” supplements in local city magazines. That kind of bad business practice makes life difficult for all of us who are legitimate producers of editorial and documentary work. Just the times we live in, I guess.

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