National Empowerment Television

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National Empowerment Television (NET), also known as America's Voice, was a cable TV network designed to rapidly mobilize Religious Right followers for grassroots lobbying. It was created by Paul M. Weyrich, a key strategist for the secular and religious right. At its peak, it claimed to reach more than 11 million homes.

History

NET began in 1993 as a project of Weyrich's Free Congress Foundation and went to air for the first time on December 6, 1993.

The Columbia Journalism Review observed in 1994 that it spurned "broadcast journalism's caveat against partisan news programming. ... One-third of the programs on NET are produced by 'associate broadcasters' -- organizations handpicked by Weyrich to share NET's airtime. Among the dozen associate broadcasters on NET are Accuracy in Media, the National Rifle Association, and the American Life League, an anti-abortion group. Though these programs can look like 'Discovery Channel' documentaries, they are in fact unrestrained, unfiltered, political infomercials." [1]

As part of its audience mobilization strategy, NET invited viewers to participate in eight hours of live call-in television each day. Programs included:

  • The Progress Report, hosted by then-House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich
  • Direct Line with Paul W. Weyrich
  • Borderline, a forum for discussion of conservative views on immigration policy.
  • The Cato Forum, which provided the Cato Institute with an on-going opportunity to promote its beliefs concerning the illegitimacy of taxes and government regulation.
  • Legal Notebook, providing discussion and perspectives by legal analysts on crime in America.
  • Straight Talk, produced in conjunction with the anti-gay Family Research Council.
  • On Target With the National Rifle Association.
  • Science Under Siege, co-produced with the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

NET and Philip Morris

In a 1993 internal strategy paper, Philip Morris (PM) canvassed options for increasing NET's adverse coverage of the Bill Clinton's proposal to finance an expanded public health care system with increased taxes on tobacco. "Generate additional publicity by having NET dedicate a news crew and programming to the health care issue as well as other challenges to the industry. Regarding health care, the crew could cover the town hall meeting sponsored by Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE) and broadcast the highlights nationally," the memo suggested.

"With respect to other issues, NET could produce their own version of a 60 Minutes show demonstrating the industry's side of controversial issues such as FDA/nicotine and the EPA's risk assessment on ETS. Finally, NET could sponsor public opinion surveys in key congressional districts on the health care issue and broadcast the results, " the memo stated.

While PM was hoping to ask NET to assist in advancing their corporate agenda, they were willing to help NET too. "Philip Morris could increase the impact of NET's coverage by assisting the network in getting additional cable companies to carry their broadcasts," the memo stated.

Funding was an option too. "Since NET is a TV network, we could fund these activities via product advertisements from the food and beer business," the memo suggested. [2]

A March 1994 internal strategy document by the Philip Morris tobacco company revealed that it cost the company $200,000 to become an Associate Broadcaster of the 24 hour a day cable/satellite network which boasted a potential viewership of 25 million people. PM's initial project was the development of a mini-series critiquing the proposed Clinton health care plan. The miniseries, PM explained, would "focus on debunking the myths of the Clinton plan and the use of excises to fund such a plan, and to investigate more market-driven alternatives". [3]

"NET will also seek to motivate constituents from influential congressional districts by engaging them in the policy debate through interviews and viewer call-ins. Participants will include policy group allies of PM who share our viewpoint on healthcare, " PM staff reported.

The benefits of their status as an associate broadcaster extended to gaining favorable coverage on other tobacco related issues too "as evidence by their interview with Steve Parrish last week re FDA regulation and nicotine, and coverage of the march on Washington".

PM was hopeful NET could prove to be a powerful campaign tool. "If the health care miniseries goes well, the possibilities of working with NET to present our side of the story are virtually limitless (VNR's, district by district canvassing, etc) … but will require a substantial amount of increased support", the internal report noted.

While NET's hype was about massive audience reach, the reality was much more sobering. A Nielsen viewership survey undertake March 14-18 calculated the rating for NET as 0.2 which NET argued was "one-quarter of the actual viewership of a major, heavily-marketed nationwide cable network specializing in sports programming". As NET themselves noted, a 0.2 rating would translate into a maximum audience of 85,212. [4]

While NET hyped its audience reach, the pressure to raise funds from sponsors was constant. "Philip Morris was one of the first members of the business community to realize and utilize NET's potential … I am hopeful that Philip Morris can continue with a grant of $100,000," Weyrich wrote in September 1994.

In a proposal sent to potential sponsors, NET boasted that in its first nine months had "confirmed the validity of its motivating premise: that public affairs broadcasting based upon solid American principles and values has appeal beyond the hearty but thin ranks of policy wonks by making discussion of public affairs exciting and compelling by igniting viewers passions, by bringing elected officials onto love programs to be grilled by caller around the country and by hosting programs not with TV personalities but with veteran Washington hands familiar with how the nation's capital works". [5]

According to the proposal, one of the changes NET had made to its programs had been by "increasing conflict: Champions and opponents of measures increasingly face each other on the shows". [6]

Another supporter was the then Speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, who hosted his own weekly program, "Progress Report with Newt Gingrich". The program was paid for by Gingrich's Progress and Freedom Foundation and was reported to cost $140,000.[7]

Gingrich also helped out by hosting a February 1995 $50,000 plate fundraising dinner to top up NET's coffers.

In the ensuing controversy over Gingrich's role as a fundraiser for a conservative media organization, Weyrich defended his sponsor. "The fact is that but for the efforts of people like the speaker, NET would not continue," Weyrich wrote in a column in The Washington Times. [8]

According to NET's proposal, its first year budget was $5.6 million with $1million to be raised from eight 'associate producers' with advertising scheduled to bring in only $365,000 and on-air fundraising another $262,000. The shortfall NET hoped, would be raised from grants from pledges from unspecified sources. [9]

Philip Morris, was also generous towards the Free Congress Foundation. In January 1995, Weyrich sent a letter to PM's General Counsel and Senior Vice-President External Affairs, Steve Parrish, to thank him for a $500,000 contribution towards the organisations general operating support. "It goes without saying that we are enormously grateful for your support," Weyrich wrote. [10]

A few months later, Weyrich wrote to PM's Thomas J. Borelli to inform him that from April 1, National Empowerment Television "will now be referred to as NET-Political NewsTalk Network".

"It seems that the name National Empowerment Television often led to some misconceptions about what we do. As we actively pursue new affiliates, we now hope to be be more readily identifiable as a public policy organization," he explained. [11]

"You always seem to be there for us and we realize we wouldn't be where we our [sic] today without you, Weyrich's daughter, Diana, wrote in a letter to Borelli. [12]

NET repayed the favour. In an internal memo, Borelli reported in July 1995 that the channel "has taken a strong stand against last week's FDA announcement ... Since Thursday, NET has been blasting FDA and David A. Kessler using members of Congress and journalists as guests on a wide variety of its programs," he wrote. One report by Weyrich himself, Borelli noted, "included a several minute-long blistering attack on the FDA," he wrote.

Although NET was launched with a budget of $10 million, it bled money. In 1995 alone, Weyrich transferred $2 million in assets to the project, but when it failed to get financial support on a continuing basis, NET split off as a private business and sought private funds. It re-launching in the spring of 1997 as a for-profit TV channel called "America's Voice," with another $20 million in seed money. However, Weyrich's strident political tone brought him into conflict with Robert Sutton, a broadcast executive who had been hired to run the network. Sutton persuaded the network's board to force out Weyrich in a hostile takeover, but the station continued to flounder financially. In 2000, it was purchased by E-Cine, a Dallas-based multimedia company, which briefly returned Weyrich to the airwaves before succumbing to bankruptcy later that year.

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