For two weeks in October it looked as if the Home Shopping Network had taken over Channel 11. Instead of detective Hercule Poirot, food impresario Jeff Smith, and naturalist Marty Stouffer, a succession of sincere-looking young men and women monopolized WTTW's airtime on Saturday and Sunday afternoon and after ten on weeknights, earnestly peddling one item after another. But they weren't hawking cheap zircon necklaces or Diane Von Furstenberg's downscale fall collection. They were selling attractive souvenirs from several of the city's beloved major cultural institutions. If you wanted a Chicago Symphony Orchestra silk scarf or an Art Institute Picasso poster, the salespeople politely urged you to dial the phone number at the bottom of your TV screen so that a helpful volunteer could take your order.
The Holiday Gift Exchange Program, as this sell-athon was artfully billed, seemed like a baby boomer's dream. But what was it doing on a public broadcast station? And did WTTW breach the public trust in airing what amounted to more than 40 hours of commercials on behalf of other not-for-profits?
"It's an outrage!" fumes Gigi Sohn of the Media Access Project, a Washington, D.C., watchdog group and public-interest law firm. "What they did was a flagrant violation of the public interest. They used the public airwaves, which were set aside for public education, to sell commercial goods. Don't they know that making money and the public interest are mutually exclusive? The FCC ought to punish them for this conduct."
She has a point. The FCC bars broadcasters who hold noncommercial licenses from selling products. Public stations like WTTW are allowed to raise money for their own operations, but are explicitly forbidden to do so for other organizations. A 1984 FCC administrative ruling states, "Fundraising activities which significantly alter a station's normal programming, including auctions, marathons, membership drives, etc. should be carried for the benefit of the station only, and not for other organizations."
The language of the law seems straightforward, but Bruce Marcus, Channel 11's senior vice president for corporate marketing and communication, gives it a different spin. "First of all, we consider the Holiday Gift Exchange Program to be regularly scheduled programming," he explains. "We notified our viewers ahead of time, so they knew what to expect. The program was not an auction, or a marathon, or a pledge drive. It was educational and entertaining. We didn't break any rules." Indeed, the selling of the merchandise--most items priced between $35 and $100--was accompanied by slick promotional clips introducing the latest offerings from the CSO, the Art Institute, the Field Museum, the Lincoln Park Zoo, and WTTW itself. "We exposed the cultural riches of the city to a wide audience. That was a main criterion," Marcus points out. "Believe me, we had a lot of discussions internally about going ahead with this concept. We didn't want to disrupt people's viewing habits, so we didn't preempt prime time or kids' programs. We looked at where TV is going in the future, with the advent of Home Shopping and QVC. We're always under pressure to find new ways of making money."
There's no doubt that home-shopping services are becoming a potent force in the TV business. Pitching products directly to a vast viewership is part of the interactivity pundits are predicting for the brave new world of convergence, in which fiber-optic lines, cellular and computer technology, and virtual reality pave the superhighways through which information travels. The profits can be enormous, which is why the stock of Home Shopping Network quintupled in a few short years. It's also why Barry Diller, who used to run Fox Network, bought a stake in QVC and now runs the home-shopping giant, the only rival to Home Shopping Network. And why QVC, still a novice in the media business, is able to line up blue-chip corporate partners in its hostile takeover bid for Paramount Communications. WTTW has seen the future.
It has also stepped into murky legal waters. "From what I read, I believe the station did violate our regulation," says Roger Holberg, a spokesman for the FCC. "However, we really can't do anything until we receive a complaint from consumers or from our field office." (WFMT, as many listeners know, runs annual radiothons for the CSO and Lyric Opera, but it holds a commercial license and is not affected by the nonprofit status of its parent organization, the Chicago Educational Television Association, which also owns WTTW.)
According to some media-law specialists, WTTW's case, if it had one to begin with, is further weakened by a recent precedent. Earlier this year KSJN, the dominant public-radio station in Minneapolis, requested a onetime waiver from the FCC to run a daylong fund-raiser for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. After considering the orchestra's dire financial situation and its longtime association with the station, the FCC granted a "special and unique" waiver. "Which offers a compelling argument that 'TTW should've asked the feds' approval first," says a local broadcast lawyer who asked not to be identified. "The fact they didn't is going to look bad if the case is heard by the commissioners."
"Well, I think it's more correct to say that we were testing uncharted waters," says Marcus. "No, we didn't notify the FCC. We didn't think it was necessary. The program was to be a two-week test, an experiment to see if there's a need for this type of home shopping that also helps out cultural institutions in Chicago." WTTW, under CEO Bill McCarter, is one of the best run and most lucrative public stations in the country and has always been on the lookout for new sources of financial support. A decade ago it participated in public TV's brief experiment with on-air advertising, which was sanctioned by the FCC. It was among the first to air regular commercials during program breaks. Sticking largely to noncontroversial programming, it has also won over an inordinate number of corporate and individual benefactors. With home shopping it could capitalize on its tony image and well-to-do audience. Demographic reports on TV-shopping trends indicate that more and more busy professionals are buying higher-quality merchandise on the shopping channels. In fact, department stores such as Macy's and catalog powerhouses such as Spiegel are creating their own home-shopping services. WTTW could carve out its own profitable niche by cornering the museum-orchestra-zoo gift market. Carried on about 220 cable systems, it could reach as many as six million fans of Masterpiece Theatre.
According to Marcus, Channel 11 took a cut of the gross sales from the Holiday Gift Exchange Program. Part of that money covered the cost of running the program, and the rest went into the station's general coffers. Marcus can't disclose the final sales figures yet, though he says, "We're happy with the results. They went beyond our expectations." Among the best-sellers were reproductions of African masks on display at the Field Museum, a "rain-forest preservation kit" from the zoo, and Beethoven afghans from the CSO. Marcus credits the program's success partly to the soft-sell approach: prices and shipping costs didn't flash continuously on the screen, there weren't incessant counts of how many items remained, and the salespeople didn't clown around.
So far, the station has gotten more than 300 calls about the program. "About half were queries about some of the products," says Marcus. "One-third were complaints about preempted programs. Only a tiny minority questioned whether we should have aired the program in the first place."
At least two or three organizations and a few individuals are contemplating action against the station, according to Andy Schwartzman, a colleague of Gigi Sohn's at the Media Access Project. "We're seriously examining the options," he says. "One client will definitely file a complaint with the FCC, which shouldn't have allowed this to happen in the first place. 'TTW is unbelievably arrogant, but it does have powerful friends in Washington, people like Newton Minow." Minow is a public-broadcast innovator who's also a partner specializing in media law at Sidley & Austin.
If the FCC commissioners find that the station violated FCC rules, it is likely to get a reprimand. "It could be a gentle slap on the hand or a serious look at the station's management when its license comes up for renewal," explains David Haddock, who teaches broadcast law at Northwestern University's law school. "The FCC only rarely revokes a license for this kind of situation. Besides, speaking for myself, I'm all for fund-raising that keeps my favorite PBS programs on the air."
But Sohn fervently believes that it's the management's duty to keep a PBS station afloat without defying its public mandate. "If they can't make a go of it, then let somebody else do it," she says. "The public broadcasting system is definitely not the place for home shopping. And what 'TTW did was to sell products, no matter what they chose to call it."
Of course, WTTW might ask for a change in the FCC's rulings, but the deliberation process, certain to involve consumer advocates as opposition, could take years. And the regulation-minded Clinton administration reportedly doesn't want to jeopardize its telecommunications agenda by letting educational TV take off in a new direction. In any case, the honchos at WTTW have other alternatives. "Depending on the audience feedback and the sales results," says Marcus, "the gift-exchange show may return in a different format. We may carry it again, or we may go to cable. We can syndicate the service as a national show for nonprofit cultural institutions all over the country." Clearly the heated debate over the role of public stations in a media world that's rapidly being reconfigured will continue.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Peter Hannan.