TV watchdog the Broadcasting Standards Committee (BSC) recently
uncovered a bizarre phenomenon that is believed to pose a very serious
threat to the credibility of British factual TV. Christened 'repeat
performer syndrome', the BSC's discovery revealed there was a growing
band of Britons addicted to appearing on daytime TV shows.
BSC researchers found producers often failed to pick up on these
so-called serial guests.
The findings touched a raw nerve in the broadcast sector, still left
reeling from the embarrassment of The Vanessa Show debacle three years
ago, in which it was discovered a series of bogus guests had appeared on
the programme. The Beeb axed the show and its larger-than-life host
Following the BSC's study, entitled Consenting Adults, programme-makers
once again faced calls for rigorous identity checking.
And just when it was thought broadcasters had learnt their lesson, last
November, an otherwise harmless guest appeared on Granada's This Morning
claiming to have been cured of a chronic sweating condition through a
surgical procedure called ETS.
On closer inspection, the case study proved to be an employee of The SPA
Way, the PR firm tasked with finding the guest and with providing
coverage for client the Scandinavian Medical Centre - a main provider of
ETS treatment .
Granada maintained The SPA Way did not make the necessary disclosure,
commenting in a piece published by PRWeek: 'It is disturbing that a PR
firm that journalists deal with in good faith should fail to make that
disclosure.' (PRWeek, 30 November 2001). Granada says they 'now consider
the matter closed' and has ruled out legal action.
Meanwhile, SPA Way partner Delia Hyde claimed the PRO in question was a
genuine sufferer, who had undergone treatment at the centre and had
worked for them 'three or four times' in the past. The SPA Way declined
to comment further for this piece.
The common thread between serial guests, hoax guests and guests who fail
to disclose their interests is the need for more rigorous checking
procedures. And there is an underlying concern that guests slip through
the net more often than broadcasters and viewers would like to
This is perhaps a symptom of the pressures inherent throughout the
industry, both for broadcasters and PROs. BroadView founder and MD
Stuart Maister, a former broadcast journalist, explains: 'From the
broadcasters' end, they are incredibly pressured, short-staffed
generally and under huge pressure to create good slots.'
Broadcasters invariably delegate the guest booking duty to researchers
or 'guest-getters', who are subject to as many pressures as the
The BSC found from its research that these factors, alongside tight
budgets and short deadlines, were leading to an over-reliance on pools
of tried-and-tested case studies, which led to 'repeat performer
But this is where PR comes in. Broadcasters, acting with the audience's
interests in mind, try to source fresh and genuine guests for every show
they produce. But when time and money are short, reliable options are
favoured. As one guest-getter admits: 'We absolutely welcome PR help in
tracking these down to cut down on the leg-work our end.'
PR can add real value to broadcasters by helping source and research
case studies, making their lives easier. 'It is a match-making
exercise,' concedes Maister.
The demand for 'the perfect case study' can force PROs and broadcasters
alike to look among themselves for the right guest. It is no secret that
the broadcast industry is incestuous, with those working in media
circles helping each other in a 'you scratch my back, I'll scratch
This often leads to PROs and journalists putting themselves forward as
interviewees, both for broadcast and print media.
Yet, as Maister says, there is no harm in PRO case studies, as long as
they disclose their interests: 'There's clearly nothing wrong with a
case study happening to work for a PR agency, as long as this is
When I was a journalist, often the way we'd find case studies was to ask
around the office and it was complete luck how we found them. In TV
journalism, speed is of the essence and you use any contacts you may
The Red Consultancy director Amanda Duncan attests to this, having
herself appeared on TV as a case study for a programme concerning
premature births and the work of charity Tommy's. As a mother who had
given birth prematurely, Duncan says she was well-qualified to comment
on the subject: 'The programme-makers knew I was in PR and actually
thought it helpful, because I would be less intimidated going on
'It was all very upfront and honest - everyone knows what they're
getting out of it and that it's mutually beneficial, but it's also
beneficial to the audience,' adds Duncan.
It would be unrealistic to expect broadcasters to ban PROs or
journalists from appearing as TV guests - they are, after all, members
of the public as much as any viewer or listener. What is imperative,
however, is that any necessary disclosure is made, both regarding the
guest's job and any relevant clients.
Former IPR president Ian Wright says the body promotes transparency
within the industry as a whole and would frown on any situation in which
a PRO fails to disclose interests: 'If people know the person appearing
is a PRO and they are there in that capacity or have declared their
profession, then there isn't an issue. It is important to make it clear
to all those producing the programme where you are coming from and leave
it to them to then make the judgement.'
Bulletin International MD Chris Foulerton says the agency, which
specialises in broadcast PR, has guidelines on checking and briefing
each guest: 'You need to make sure the client is fully briefed on the
type of programme and aware of the context of the show. It's also
important to make sure the broadcaster is briefed.'
Checking the validity and identity of case studies is just as much a
responsibility of PR as it is their target media. Weber Shandwick
broadcast account director Kirstine Cox says: 'It's important to vet
people you put forward or it reflects badly on the agency.'
An ex-BBC journalist, having worked on Panorama and Watchdog, Cox adds:
'You have to be very careful with programmes where you have emotional
issues at stake and people's lives being exposed so openly on public TV.
You have a duty to viewers to make sure that guests are credible.'
The fragile trust relationship between broadcasters and PROs relies on
consultants ensuring guests are bona fide because once the case study is
put forward, the buck stops with the broadcaster.
In the wake of the recent hoax-guest scandals and those in which guest
interests were not disclosed, it is fair to assume broadcasters have
tightened up their checking procedures, yet many are coy about revealing
the systems in place. A spokesman for This Morning broadcaster Granada
said they 'obviously had strict checking rules' but refused to divulge
them or explain if they had been tightened.
Daytime talk shows Anglia Television's Trisha and the BBC's Kilroy came
under fire from The Mirror which accused them ofusing fakesand serial
guests, although the allegations were not proven. The BBC is now keen to
make it known they have set procedures in place to check identities and
make sure guests have not previously appeared on similar shows.
BBC spokesman Sao Buivan says: 'Every person is called by a researcher
to check facts and then signs a release form to testify that everything
is correct. One of the clauses stipulates that guests will not appear on
another show until the BBC's goes out first. Guests must also disclose
if they have done a similar show in the past.'
Buivan stresses guests are not paid for appearing on talk shows, aside
from travel expenses, to avoid encouraging serial participants.
In contrast to the BBC's willingness to set the record straight, Trisha
bosses are reticent to disclose their guest screening processes. Trisha
PRO Jo Farrelly says: 'In order to ensure our guests are genuine, we
have set procedures in place, which are very effective, but we cannot
One national TV source however raised doubt about the measures used by
the industry as a rule: 'there's no real protocol that I've been
informed of for checking guests are genuine - most of the time it's just
While the broadcaster is ultimately responsible for what is aired, PR
mistakes or failures to disclose do nothing to strengthen the trust
relationship between broadcaster and PRO. Such set-backs, on the other
hand, are relatively small when set against the benefits of the
relationship. When case study packages go to plan, the product can be
beneficial to all parties.
Duncan cites an example of a healthcare case study provided as part of a
feature on menopause for This Morning, designed to further promote a
campaign being run by Red on HRT.
The guest put forward - an actress from EastEnders - talked through her
real-life experiences on going through the menopause and HRT
Duncan says: 'They had more calls through the phonelines than ever
before and hundreds of people writing into the show afterwards for
educational leaflets. It was the whole package that worked,' she
Maister confirms PR should pre-empt the broadcaster's needs: 'You should
go to broadcast journalists with a story that's fully-formed and
accompanied by a case study suited to TV - that way you've already done
all the research for them.'
While the This Morning incident may have few long-lasting effects on the
PR-broadcaster relationship, it does point towards a need for far more
stringent checking procedures. That means on both sides of the
EXPERT'S VIEW - Dominique Vulliamy, Editor, Esther
'There is a potential risk that if someone sets out to do an elaborate
fraud no-one can be 100 per cent certain to stop them. But we go to
extreme lengths to try to ensure that we do not get conned.
'People that come on have to sign things so that we could take them to
court if we needed to.
'But the main thing is that we check peoples' stories to make sure we
get objective proof of corroboration, maybe in the form of paperwork
such as divorce papers or by talking to the police, social workers or
'We would also speak to other people in the stories: the husband and the
neighbours, maybe. If we drew blank there would come a point at which we
would decide not to have them come on. The whole thing seems to have
become more of a problem now as there are more talk shows and people
have more awareness about how they work. I do not think fibbing would
have occurred to people before. There are different reasons for it -
there was a phase when it was students who were doing it for bets I
think. But there is a big difference between saying, "I think I am
ugly", and something more substantial.
'We do not use the companies that find people as we do it ourselves
through things such as newspaper articles. If someone is with an agency
we will not use them for a number of reasons: we want people who are
telling real stories, also we do not pay the fees they require and also
they may have been on other shows.'