This guest post by author and essayist Kim Brittingham addresses an issue I’ve been getting an increasing number of questions about lately: pay-to-play TV talk shows. Kim takes an illuminating look at the phenomenon euphemistically dubbed “branded entertainment,” and explains why these infomercial-style shows–which charge fees of up to several thousand dollars–aren’t a genuine path to media exposure.
The same cautions apply to radio, by the way. There are many shows on regular and Internet radio that charge appearance fees, or want you to pay for turning your interview into a podcast, or use some similar ploy to remove money from your pocket. The amounts are usually smaller–a few hundred dollars, rather than a few thousand–but the principle is the same. Whether it’s radio or television, you should never have to pay a fee to be a guest on a show.
If you’re an author — whether you sold your book to a publisher or self-published it — you’d probably jump at the chance to talk about your book on national television. Who wouldn’t?
But beware of predatory producers of “branded entertainment” TV talk shows that are little more than glorified infomercials. They know how badly you want to promote your book to a large audience, and they’ll use that desire to try and separate you from your money, to the tune of thousands of dollars.
Not all the news-style or talk shows you see on television are legitimate. What do I mean by “legitimate”? I mean programming that isn’t paid advertising.
Most of us have seen those early morning infomercials on cable, selling everything from vacuum cleaners to shapewear. They’re just long commercials, often orchestrated to look like “real” TV shows, sometimes with a host, a stage set inspired by the Today Show, and a clap-happy studio audience.
Most of us recognize that those audience members are paid actors, as is the host, and the guest is a representative of the product or service they’re talking about and trying to sell.
Infomercial creators know that when people see products (such as books) discussed on news or talk shows, people take those products more seriously, or give them more weight, than if they merely saw them advertised in a commercial.
Most of us know commercials are paid for; we assume most stories on TV shows have been chosen by the show’s producers because they offer some value to the viewing audience, whether it’s information or just plain entertainment.
But there’s a new generation of infomercial out there, and some are calling it “branded entertainment”. Branded entertainment talk shows are essentially “packages” of lots of little infomercials strung together to look like an ordinary TV talk show.
One example is The Balancing Act, a show that airs daily on Lifetime between 6:00 and 7:00 AM. The content on The Balancing Act is built around sponsor products. In other words, every segment you see on the show is a commercial. Somebody paid to put it on the air. (Here’s a sample participant contract.)
This kind of paid advertising does leak into “legitimate” television now and then, but the difference is this: legit shows derive most of their content from unpaid sources.
You certainly won’t find a show like Today or Good Morning America charging authors a fee to be on their show. Take note: it doesn’t work that way. But it is how “branded entertainment” works.
So here’s a warning. If you published a book, self-published or otherwise, you may get an e-mail or phone call about being on guest on a TV show — and at first blush, it may seem very exciting. But if the show reaching out to you is a branded entertainment product, don’t be too flattered — because what you’re really getting is a sales pitch.
But how can I tell it’s not a legitimate TV show? It’s on a major cable TV network. It has a real web site. There are even celebrities on this show!
Just because it’s on a “real” TV channel doesn’t mean it isn’t one big advertisement. Remember, traditional infomercials are aired on real TV channels too.
And branded entertainment products often incorporate celebrities. It’s possible those celebrities bought time on the show just like every other sponsor, but it’s more likely the show paid the celebrity to make an appearance, to give the show an air of legitimacy — just as The Balancing Act features fitness expert Denise Austin.
Even if you don’t know in advance, you can tell pretty quickly what kind of show you’re dealing with when you get the “producer” on the phone. Your impulse may be to be polite until you’re sure–but as soon as your hunch is strong enough, simply ask: “Are you trying to sell me something?” (A better question, perhaps, would be “Do you charge your guests any fees?” In order to make what they’re selling seem less like paid advertising, the show might give the cost of the spot a name, like an “appearance fee”. They also do this to make authors who are inexperienced with the media think this sort of thing is normal. It’s not.)
When you return that producer’s call, here are several red flags that may indicate a sales pitch is forthcoming:
“Tell me about you.” If the producer wants you to tell her about you or your book, be suspicious. Most legit TV producers will already have done their homework on you and your book, and they’ll be inviting you on the show based on that information. If the producer is actually a salesperson, she probably doesn’t have time to gather background on the hundreds of suckers she’s baiting in a single day, which would explain her need to put the burden on you to fill in the blanks.
My, but she’s chatty. Is the producer taking a long, relaxed time to discuss the show, describe its history and background, tell how happy she is to be working there? Is she laying out an impressive picture for you? Be suspicious. Most legit TV producers don’t have time for chit-chat. Furthermore, a legit show doesn’t need to impress you. They have a huge audience, and trust me — if you don’t want to be on the show, there are thousands of other potential guests who will. No legit TV producer needs to sell you on their show.
Ridiculous time slot. Does the show air in the middle of the night, or before 9:00 AM? This could indicate a branded entertainment product. Branded shows pay the network to air their show. It’s cheaper for them to buy time in off-hours. And most networks have “real” entertainment filling regular day and evening hours anyway.
They tout their work with self-published authors. I’m not trying to be a jerk here, but the fact is, most legit TV shows don’t feature self-published books. Unless there’s an extraordinary story attached to the book or the author, it’s extremely rare. So if the producer brags about how they give a platform to self-published authors, be suspicious. (I’m sorry — not my rules!)
A saleswoman who called herself Brenda Felton attempted to sell me a spot on The Balancing Act for $5,900. I laughed at her.
It’s true that an author gets something in exchange for her $5,900 “appearance fee”. She gets to be on The Balancing Act. Yes, it’s national television. But it’s Lifetime — not NBC, not MTV, not FOX. Furthermore, it’s 6:00 AM on Lifetime. It’s one appearance on one episode. Is it worth $5,900? I don’t believe it is.
You might think being able to say you’ve “been on national television” will be a boon for your resume, help get you on other television shows. But if nobody’s heard of The Balancing Act — or perhaps worse, if they know what kind of show it is, and when and where it airs — it might have the opposite effect, maybe even make you look foolish. Besides, how impressive can it be when anybody with $5,900 can get on the show? It doesn’t exactly set you and your hard work apart.
There are proactive steps you can take to promote your book, and I encourage you to give it your all. Consult with established, respected sources of information, such as Writer’s Digest and SheWrites, for ideas. At the same time, stay alert to dodgy, pseudo-media opportunties from pay-to-play TV show predators.
Kim Brittingham is an author, essayist and video host. Her first book, a memoir titled READ MY HIPS: How I Learned to Love My Body, Ditch Dieting and Live Large is coming in spring 2011 from Random House. Find out more at www.kimwrites.com.