Diet Pill Maker Underwrites PBS Obesity Show


The sponsorship of a PBS program on obesity by diet drug maker GlaxoSmithKline has one veteran noncom TV watcher a bit exercised, but PBS says it is by the book.

Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, and a frequent critic of what he sees as the increasingly commercialization of noncommercial broadcasting, has written to PBS ombudsman Michael Getler to complain about what he sees as too lax sponsorship policies.

Glaxo is underwriting the April broadcast of Fat: What No One is Telling You, the second in the "Take One Step" series of health-related shows and outreach PBS is undertaking in concert with the YMCA. The series kicked off this week with a show on heart disease, but Glaxo was not a funder, according to a spokeswoman for producer WGBH Boston. But Glaxo is underwriting the "Fat" show, which debuts April 11.

"We note that funding comes in part from GlaxoSmithKline," Chester wrote Getler. "The drug giant just happens to have a recently approved for over-the-counter drug on the market-under the brand name Alli, that is for "use by overweight adults along with a reduced calorie, low-fat diet."

The company is also featuring a lead story on obesity on its home page. While not mentioning the new drug or show, it calls obesity "more than just a disease," but also "more than just eating too much. But the world is getting weightier and the trends suggest that it will continue," says the company. "So, why is obesity such a problem, and what can be done about it?"

PBS program executives need to `cut the fat' out of their sloppy review of what's appropriate for underwriting," said Chester.

Under PBS rules, underwriters do not get any say over programming, and obesity is clearly a national health issue, but Chester fears the show will effectively be a plug for the new diet drug and that ""Programs on PBS should be free of connections to sponsors who have a vested interest in an issue."

A spokeswoman for Twin Cities Public Television, which produced the show, had not returned a call for comment at press time, but PBS responded to B&C with the following statement.

"PBS and The Corporation for Public Broadcasting provided the initial production funding for FAT: What No One is Telling You through its “Program Challenge Fund,” which also included a grant for an educational community outreach initiative. "Production on FAT: What No One is Telling You began in October 2005 and was nearing the end of production when the corporate sponsor, GlaxoSmithKline, came on board in January 2006 and provided additional funding for the broadcast, community outreach and Spanish language translation. "As is always the case with corporate funders of PBS programs, at no time did the corporate sponsor have any editorial input into the show, nor have they seen it, and this strict separation was maintained throughout production. "Lastly, the sponsor credit for GlaxoSmithKline is a corporate image spot and does not mention any drug product, including those used to treat obesity. FAT:  What No One is Telling You premieres April 11, 2007 on PBS."