In Depth

Working Sunday Morning ‘Miracles’

Drug Makers’ Paid Program Mixes Soft Sell, Vital Information

Coach Kay Yow, North Carolina State’s women’s basketball coach, is an oft-cited inspiration in the cancer community for her unflagging, unflinching fight against metastasized breast cancer. Her humor and strength are on full display in an episode of the 30-minute program “Sharing Miracles,” which airs Sunday mornings in 25 markets reaching 15 million homes (as of April).

“Sharing Miracles” is a production of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), which represents the country’s leading pharmaceutical research and biotechnology companies in Washington.

The 30-minute “paid programming” series features profiles of people who face chronic or life-threatening illnesses with courage. Among other subjects of profiles are former White House Press Secretary Tony Snow, who is battling colon cancer; two-time cancer survivor Sean Swarner, who climbed the tallest mountains on seven continents; “Leave It to Beaver” TV star Jerry Mathers, who has diabetes; and talk show host Montel Williams, who has multiple sclerosis.

In the end segment of each episode, a company representative talks about the disease and what treatments and medicines are available.

From pitches for rock-hard abs to cubic zirconium jewelry, paid programming has always been a reality of broadcast television and a staple of some cable networks. But the brash salesmanship of the infomercial has given way to the more sophisticated program that marries high production values and softball sales to achieve a broader agenda.

“Sharing Miracles” fits that to a T. Production values are high; the program is produced in PhRMA’s $1.5 million, state-of-the-art digital broadcast facility outfitted with Sony DXC-D50WS cameras. (Field production uses a high-definition Sony HDW-730S along with two Beta SP cameras.) The guests who are the focus of each program are big enough names to be recognizable to the public, and their stories are well told. And the agenda is to “sell” a new image of the big pharmaceutical companies.

“In all honesty, we’re trying to take our story to people outside of the critical media filter,” said PhRMA Senior VP of Communications Ken Johnson, who is executive producer of “Sharing Miracles.” “There’s a lot of cynicism in America, particularly with regard to prescription medicine. A lot of people have said we’re Darth Vader, but we develop new life-saving medicines. We want to let people know that help is on the way.”

“Sharing Miracles” is broken up by “commercials” for PhRMA’s Partnership for Prescription Assistance, which PhRMA describes as “a single point of access to more than 475 public and private patient assistance programs, including more than 180 programs offered by pharmaceutical companies.” Mr. Johnson pointed out that the “commercials” do not deal with any specific drugs, whereas other ads talk about new medicines in development without naming them.

Done In-House
Mr. Johnson declined to reveal the cost per episode of producing the program, but said everything is done in-house, with a staff of “over 20,” with the exception of an outside lighting consultant and an outside audio consultant. On-staff engineer Kevin Barber directs the shows. “It’s a truly home-grown product,” Mr. Johnson said.

Paid programming isn’t journalism, but media experts acknowledge that PhRMA has the right to produce it and TV stations have the right to air it. “They’re entitled to spend their money any way they want, and TV stations are entitled to take it,” said former CNN reporter Gary Schwitzer, who is director of the health journalism master’s program at the University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism & Mass Communications. “I’d just throw up a huge caveat emptor to any viewers of Sunday TV that [“Sharing Miracles”] won’t make them a smarter health care consumer.”

The focus on true stories, rather than a hard sell on the pharmaceutical industry, blunts some of the criticism that journalists and media experts often level at paid programming. “It appears to be a 28-minute, walking, talking brochure,” said Ed Silverman, who reports on health care for the Star-Ledger of New Jersey and whose news-driven blog Pharmalot covers the pharmaceutical industry. “That said, it does have some compelling, or at least poignant, individual stories that are clearly designed to tug the heartstrings. In that regard, I imagine it’s effective.”

Mr. Johnson said it hasn’t been difficult to find high-profile guests who want to share their stories and a message of hope for those suffering with a disease or those who care for someone who is. Upcoming subjects include actors Joe Pantoliano and Chazz Palminteri and singer Deborah (formerly Debbie) Gibson.

The “Sharing Miracles” Web site is designed to allow patients to share their stories. “It’s rapidly filling with stories from all over the country,” said Mr. Johnson. “And through the Web site we’ve been contacted by thousands of people asking for [free] copies of the show. It costs us $1 to reproduce the DVD, but it’s money well spent in the goodwill it engenders.”

Time Slots Matter
He reported that PhRMA sells the show on a station-by-station basis. “A lot of it has to do with time slots that are available, as well as lead-ins and lead-outs,” he said. “We try to find spots where we are a tie-in with the Sunday talk shows. There are a lot of people who flip the channels on Sunday to see who’s on ‘Meet the Press’ or ‘CNN With Wolf Blitzer.’ They see Tony Snow and ask, ‘What’s this about?’ And then they’re hooked on the show.”

Mr. Silverman said he understands why PhRMA is producing and distributing “Sharing Miracles.” “Just because an industry has done certain things that are questionable and in certain cases unfortunate doesn’t mean that the entire industry is wrong or doesn’t sell legitimately useful products,” he said. “I think they have the right to promote their products. They’re very defensive and frustrated and want to find some other way to reach the average American. At the end of the day, it’s one long tug of the heartstring, and you have to take it with a grain of salt.”

Media experts’ concerns focus on whether the stations are doing a good job of letting viewers know “Sharing Miracles” is a paid program. “Otherwise, if this comes across as a feel-good story about the PhRMA program without that disclosure, I’d hold the TV station accountable,” said Mr. Schwitzer.

“It’s a point of concern given that dozens of TV stations have gone into sponsorship deals with hospitals to put paid-for news in their newscasts without labeling it as such. Viewers had better be smart and aware that there’s money exchanging hands,” he added.

At one of the stations that runs “Sharing Miracles,” KOVR-TV in Sacramento, General Manager Bruno Cohen said the station makes it clear to its viewers that “Sharing Miracles” is fully sponsored, paid programming “by airing an audio and video announcement immediately prior to every broadcast, and clearly identifies the sponsor within the program both at the beginning and end of each episode.”

Independent health journalist Andrew Holtz, who writes the online Holtz Report and is author of “The Medical Science of ‘House, M.D.,’” pointed out, “Stations have the duty to provide balanced programming, even though the fairness doctrine isn’t in force. If they accept a program that only tells one side of the story, they need to do something else to balance it,” he said. “And if they’re not, why not? Does the station leave a gaping silence to any opposing point of view? Are audiences for sale to the highest bidder?”

Mr. Johnson expects the criticism and has an answer for it. “We’ll be judged by whether or not people watch,” he said. “What we’re doing is presenting a side of the story that doesn’t get told in the mainstream press.”