While KCET Channel 28 was very publicly wrestling with the Catholic Church over the Sept. 6 airing of a film critical of church policy, the public-television station was quietly locking horns with the dairy and beef industries over tonight's scheduled broadcast of a program that urges people to cut down their consumption of animal products.
The program, "Diet for a New America," is based on a best-selling book by John Robbins, who contends that the process of raising cattle is environmentally unsound and that cutting down to a very small amount of meat and dairy products can increase a person's life expectancy and greatly curtail the risks of heart disease and certain cancers.
"We view this particular presentation as nothing more than an 'advertorial' for John Robbins' book," said Less Guthrie, president of the California Cattlemen's Assn. "It's an hourlong commercial to sell a book on public television."
Scheduled to air at 9 p.m., the program was produced by KCET as part of its "Lifeguides" series of home videos. At 8 p.m., the station will air "Eat Smart," an hourlong program on nutrition produced for PBS by MacNeil/Lehrer Productions.
"After viewing ("Eat Smart"), we got the idea of having a whole nutrition evening," said KCET publicist Julio Martinez. "(Viewers) should come out with a very specific feeling that many people who deserve respect really question the traditional American meat-based diet."
Because KCET produces its "Lifeguides" programs for sale as well as for broadcast, the station has already begun marketing tapes of "Diet for a New America" through the PBS Home Video label. So far, about 5,100 copies have been sold, according to Martinez.
While KCET has denied that it is bowing to industry pressure in doing so, the station does plan to follow tonight's broadcast of "Diet for a New America" with a panel discussion that includes a nutritionist recommended by the California Beef Council. Its recent telecast of the controversial "Stop the Church" also was followed by a program discussing issues raised in the film.
The idea, according to David Crippens, KCET's senior vice president for educational enterprises, is to present the views of those who advocate consumption of beef and dairy products in order to provide journalistic balance after a program that takes a negative approach toward animal products.
Guthrie said that his group, along with the California Beef Council and the California Dairy Council, lobbied KCET for more than a year to dissuade them from producing "Diet for a New America." The industry groups wanted the station to produce a program that presented the views of those who advocate eating dairy products and beef, he said.
And while Guthrie and others who oppose the program say they believe their efforts spurred KCET into scheduling the panel discussion, they say that's not enough.
"We worked with PBS in Washington, D.C., and KCET trying to get this done with some sort of a balanced approach," Guthrie said. "Finally, they agreed to do this, but in a forum that we don't think is very beneficial."
The panel, Guthrie and others maintain, should run before "Diet for a New America," not after, and should have been as elaborately produced and emotionally charged as the program it is meant to balance.
"We've seen this marvelously produced show that's very New Age, almost spiritual in the way it's done," said Mary Ryan, spokeswoman for the California Beef Council. "It's environmental and it's spiritual. It's very touchy-feelie. And then you go to this three-person panel of doctors talking nutrition. It hardly shows a balance."
Robbins, who turned away from his family business, the Baskin-Robbins ice cream chain, in order to work as an environmentalist, says the beef and dairy industries have been dogging him ever since his book came out, trying to block his appearances and interfere with the production of the video based on his book.
The industry groups, he said, have a product to sell, and don't want the public to have the information in his book and in the video.
"The cattlemen say, 'Robbins is promoting his book--he's a commercial entity too,' " Robbins said. "I wrote that book because I believed in it, and because my reading of the scientific literature compelled me to do so. If I had been motivated to make money, that's not what I would have done. I had the opportunity to make a lot of money in my life, and I walked away from it."