gates-viacom.jpg(A Populist Capitalist Blog) 

Call me old fashioned, but I like to know when I’m being sold, when I’m being manipulated. I like disclosure and I like transparency.

A recent article in the New York Times (below) deals with an effort by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation “to shape story lines and insert messages into popular entertainment like the television shows ‘ER,’ ‘Law & Order: SVU’ and ‘Private Practice’.” In order to influence popular culture, the foundation is putting up money to subsidize production of television shows, primarily with Viacom. Call it message placement instead of product placement.

It is a lot easier to spot a can of Coke in the hand of your favorite actor (and dismiss it as the paid plug it is) than to spot a more subtle twist of story line and dialogue to advance a particular cultural agenda.

I believe that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has the best of intentions and their pro-education, pro-healthy living, and HIV/AIDS awareness agenda is one generally in sync with my personal values. Yet I cannot help being concerned about the lack of disclosure and transparency in the embedded messages. I am apprehensive that more nefarious and less public spirited agendas may follow.

— New York Times Article—

Messages With a Mission, Embedded in TV Shows
April 2, 2009

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently spent $2 million to expand Internet access in Latvian libraries, $90 million to help African cocoa and cashew farmers and $11 million for further research in the Philippines to help produce higher-yielding rice crops.

And foundation money was used for another cause: it helped develop the script for a recent episode of “ER” that featured the return of George Clooney.

The huge foundation, brimming with billions of dollars from Mr. Gates and Warren Buffett, is well known for its myriad projects around the world to promote health and education.

It is less well known as a behind-the-scenes influencer of public attitudes toward these issues by helping to shape story lines and insert messages into popular entertainment like the television shows “ER,” “Law & Order: SVU” and “Private Practice.” The foundation’s messages on H.I.V. prevention, surgical safety and the spread of infectious diseases have found their way into these shows.

Now the Gates Foundation is set to expand its involvement and spend more money on influencing popular culture through a deal with Viacom, the parent company of MTV and its sister networks VH1, Nickelodeon and BET. It could be called “message placement”: the social or philanthropic corollary to product placement deals in which marketers pay to feature products in shows and movies. Instead of selling Coca-Cola or G.M. cars, they promote education and healthy living.

Last week in New York Mr. Gates met with Philippe P. Dauman, the chief executive of Viacom, to go over a long-in-the-works initiative that would give Mr. Gates’s philanthropic organization something any nonprofit would cherish: an enormous megaphone. The new partnership, titled Get Schooled, involves consultation between Gates Foundation experts and executives at all Viacom networks that make programming decisions. Their goal is to weave education-theme story lines into existing shows or to create new shows centered on education.

“We are committing the entire creative power of our organization,” Mr. Dauman said. “The whole company is really engaged behind this.”

While Viacom is donating on-air time for public-service announcements, and foundation officials are consulting with programming executives, the foundation is also putting up money for production — not just to make public-service announcements but also to indirectly subsidize Viacom’s programming.

“We’re open to all of that, and we’ll figure out how best to use our resources once we get deeper in to it,” said Allan C. Golston, president for United States programs at the foundation. He said the organization would provide funds to third parties that “create content” for Viacom.

The efforts of philanthropies to influence entertainment programming is not new, although viewers are probably less aware of it then obvious marketing tie-ins in which, for example, a can of Coca-Cola shows up in a character’s hands. The Kaiser Family Foundation, which focuses on health issues, has been doing such work for a dozen years. It has worked story lines about H.I.V. and AIDS into programs on CBS and UPN (now known as the CWnetwork), including the reality show “America’s Next Top Model.”

“We’ve been doing this for a long time, but it’s only more recently that we’ve begun to see more foundations and nonprofits work with this approach,” said Tina Hoff, vice president and director for entertainment media partnerships at the Kaiser Foundation.

James Steyer, chief executive of Common Sense Media, which promotes family-oriented entertainment, said foundations typically seek to mold television programs with just advice and prodding.

“The difference here is the Gates Foundation is paying for this, that they are actually willing to pay for programming,” Mr. Steyer said.

Last year, for example, the foundation awarded a $1.37 million, three-year grant to the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication, where academics have organized meetings between writers and producers of those shows and experts in H.I.V. and surgical practices.

The foundation’s relationship with Viacom goes back about five years and has centered on efforts to promote education. To start this next phase of the partnership formally, Viacom plans a promotional roadblock — with the same programming showing across all its cable channels — for a half-hour on Sept. 8, pegged to the beginning of the school year. Mr. Golston spoke of Viacom’s ability to reach a mass youth audience, and said, “This is a real opportunity for us to do something powerful.”

He added that working with television in this vein was essential because the foundation could reach more people than through direct support of education.

“Scholarships are not enough,” he said. “There are not enough resources to give scholarships to everyone.”

The foundation, for example, paid for a 22-minute film called “Bring Your ‘A’ Game,” about the perils of dropping out of high school, produced by Mario Van Peebles. It is scheduled to run on BET in September. Ms. Hoff, who said Gates Foundation officials had sought her out for advice, said the main reason for such efforts was to combat inaccurate information about health issues that crop up in popular culture. “It’s not about planting a message,” she said. “We start from the vantage point of ensuring accuracy.”

Officials who have used these methods said they had been effective in influencing public views and behavior.

“There’s a lot of research that shows that when a character in a series says, ‘I’m going to be an organ donor,’ it’s effective, more effective than giving out a pamphlet,” said Martin Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center. The center’s Hollywood, Health and Society program received its Gates Foundation grant last year.

It was Mr. Kaplan’s effort that succeeded in influencing the plot of Mr. Clooney’s return to “ER.” The Lear Center organized a meeting between the show’s writers and Dr. Atul Gawande, a surgeon and writer for The New Yorker, who briefed the group on the World Health Organization’s checklist for safe surgery. That subject wound up in one of the main plotlines of “ER”: the kidney transplant of Noah Wyle’s character, Dr. Carter.

Last fall the plot of an episode of “Law & Order: SVU,” about mother-to-child transmission of H.I.V., stemmed from a meeting that Mr. Kaplan set up between an AIDS expert and writers from the show.

“Our view is you don’t have to sacrifice entertainment value to be accurate,” Mr. Kaplan said.