Guest Blog Post: Beware of Pay-To-Play TV Talk Shows

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.


By Kim Brittingham

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


  1. I was contacted today by someone named Mario, purporting to be a producer on The Balancing Act, and seemed to be interested in producing a spot on the show featuring my business. Everything seemed to be on the up and up until I was told that there was a fee of nearly 20 grand involved, which I said I was unable to pay. Mario quickly ended the call.

    I wonder if Montel Williams is aware of what is being done in his name? Maybe he is? Maybe not? Anybody know?

  2. I received a call from them today. So glad I read this. They wanted to charge $19,700 for a 3-5 minute segment. And yes, they did try to sell me how wonderful their program

  3. To this day they are doing the same with raising their prices. I just got off the phone with a young gentleman who told me the fee was almost $20k!!! They should be ashamed

  4. I will add to this- working in PR, I've been contacted by these pay for play shows often – most are based in FL. While I passed, someone on my marketing team invested the $10k and approved the project – I got stuck working with the "producers" on the show segment and it was a complete nightmare. They avoided calls, missed deadlines, lied about where the segment would be shot, never delivered any reports/results and we never got to see or received a final segment. Complete waste of time and energy- STAY AWAY.

  5. The Balancing Act pays for their airtime and then they resell it as a "show". They pay (roughly) $5000 for the airtime. Then, they charge "participants" $50k for "production fees". I do professional production. For $50k you could create your own show, air it and create a very robust marketing campaign to support it. O2 Media uses a clever script to scam people in to believing they are paying for a PORTION of the overall costs. If paying the CEO, staff and COMMISSIONS to the employees counts as "overall costs", then I suppose they are correct. Sales reps (producers) are paid commissions to sell the space. They are treated no differently than a telemarketer: calls monitored, sales goals, scripts, etc. The place is a call center, nothing more. If you paid them, you got ripped off in a major way. Their viewership is less than 50k per episode. Pathetic.

  6. Also was pitched $50k segment. Others are right, need to look at this as an advertising option. The cost is too high for the show and the timeslot but if there's a better cost or show involved, it could work. I'm curious to see who has actually done the show and prospered…

  7. I just got pitched for a 50k segment for my company (not a writer). This would have worked better for them before the internet.

  8. $50k? Holy crap.

    As the ongoing trickle of comments shows, The Balancing Act is out there actively soliciting. Writers, be on your guard–pay-to-play TV is a complete waste of money.

  9. I was just hit with a pitch form The Balancing Act but they wanted close to $50k for a 4-6 segment. Yeah, alright! LOL

  10. I was contacted by Moving America Forward. Im a business owner of a service company. Your article hit it right on the head. A month before the contact from them I was involved in a media frenzy heroic act. Even received a mayoral award. So when I got the contact from the show I thought nothing of it. But when I spoke to the producer they didnt have a clue about the heroic act. Even though a basic search with my name and or my company name would have shown this. So this is a complete scam in my opinion. Very sad….

  11. I just received this same pitch, and turned it down (politely) because, while advertising is a fine thing, I don't want to run an ad that bills itself to the audience as an unbiased interview. The same as I don't pay for a book review–the reviewer's supposed to be giving her honest opinion, unaffected by my money in her pocket. Thanks for this post–it was extremely helpful!

  12. My co-author has been thinking about paying for appearing on an infomercial-y show, but to promote a business instead of a book. We were discussing whether it would be cost effective, but then he got a call from a more serious show asking if he'd like to appear in an episode as a technical expert. We'll see how that pans out. I'm not sure if he was reimbursed for transportation to the show (which was a bit costly as he had to bring a 20' trailer of equipment!) but it wasn't a pay to play deal, either.

  13. Pay for Play is an increasing and painful part of the landscape. It's inevitable as the technology of video and digital production becomes more widespread and people try to make a living using it. The observations made here about the costs and conflicts of interest and difficulties associated with breaking even of god forbid making money as an author or publisher are consistent with the experiences many of my clients have had with these firms. Paying a lot of money just to be on TV isn't always a ticket to success. The selection to be a guest or an expert by a highly regarded media with a large and a reputation for objective reporting is what most people hope for, because this is what instills the trust and endorsement that drives the audience to action.

    There is one paying situation that does warrant serious consideration that authors and publishers may encounter. This occurs when a top news network show offers to do an interview by satellite uplink, but the local affiliate won't do the interview without a fee to cover their costs. These fees are usually on the order of $100 to $300 to do the half hour interview. This situation is worth taking a close look at. Think carefully about the time, issues, and exposure. Make an informed decision about whether it is worth the costs.

  14. >There was a time when MANY people believed (and some still do) that if you self-published, you weren't a "real author" or couldn't legitimately call yourself a "published author". Times change.<

    Anon, times haven't changed that much. I think most Authors who did the hard work of becoming Commercially Published still feel paying to publish does not automatically make you an author.
    The same is true for paying to be on television. Paying to get an Agent.
    While it might make sense for the guy trying to sell his most recent "chop'n dice it" gadget to buy time on the air and do an infomercial, I doubt it would result in the same sales for an Author.
    I've been on local City TV twice now, 2 separate stations and while I didn't get paid to appear, they did have some very decent donuts and coffee in their "green rooms":)
    I was a nervous wreck and really would have happily just turned around and gone home. If they had said I would have to pay them… ha, it would have been a flat out NO!
    I really doubt either of these spots (sandwiched between the local weather and the cooking segment, ha, resulted in many, if any, book sales but it was an experience:)
    I was called by the program managers but I would say to an author, if they feel television is something they would like to try, contact their local or cable stations.
    By the way, I had never heard of this show, is it just in the US?

  15. So glad I follow your blog. I can't tell you how many things I've learned here have saved me from falling prey to scams. Thanks…I'm passing this on.

  16. A couple of weeks ago I got a call from Moving America Forward William Shatner is the host. The fee to appear is $11,000. This doesn't include the expenses out of pocket to get to the studio.

    This could be considered advertising but looking at it realistically I'd have to sell a lot of books (at least 7500) to cover the basic expenses. Is it worth it? Don't know…memoirs by unknowns are not a hot seller.

  17. Anonymous, I'll be interested to know if there's any uptick in your book sales as a result of the show, or any other benefit that makes the appearance worth paying over $5,000. I'm not being confrontational–I truly would like to know. Please come back and update us.

  18. Advertising is one thing. Paying thousands to advertise is something else (of course you pay to advertise, but thousands?).

    I'm not surprised, actually. I've heard of this thing happening before.

    Thanks for this.

  19. I found the Balancing Act to be extremely professional. They not only knew all about who I was, but they had quotes from my website and were very familiar with my social networking sites. I didn't feel scammed. They were very upfront regarding the show and the production company behind the show. I can't speak for other areas in the US, but the show airs from 7 am – 8 am in NYC. Actually, considering their demographic the show airs at a perfect time.

    While I do have two books, neither is self-published, that is not why they reached out to me. In fact, I won't be speaking about my books at all but rather a subject very close to my heart "The Empowerment of Women".

    I think this blog is an excellent resource, but everyone should be mindful that we all receive and experience situations differently. If you feel guided to do a paid program because it is aligned with your message or marketing plan, you've done the research regarding the show, then do it.

    There was a time when MANY people believed (and some still do) that if you self-published, you weren't a "real author" or couldn't legitimately call yourself a "published author". Times change.

    Embrace opportunities that come your way as long as they serve your good.

  20. How low can they go! Awful. They and those celebrities, (on the way down the ladder, obviously) should be ashamed of themselves!

    Thanks so much for the warning.

  21. Think of it as advertising? It is advertising! Will you actually make back your investment from extra sales? If not, don't touch it with a barge pole.

  22. Think of it as advertising. How much would it cost to run a commercial in that time slot? Is it worth it? Don't forget to include the production costs of the commercial.

    Dave K

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