BROADCAST: Guest screenings - Faced with controversy over the credibility of daytime TV guests, broadcasters are being forced to reassess their selection process. Holly Williams reports

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

Vanessa Feltz.



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

think.



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

programme-makers themselves.



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

syndrome'.



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

yours' culture.



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

disclosed.



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

have.'



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

TV.'



'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

reveal them.'



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

common sense.'



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

treatment.



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

adds.



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

fence.



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

psychologists.



'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.'



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