Is Menstruation Too Upsetting for TV?
By Ernest Sander
Ernest Sander is an editor on the Associated Press' foreign desk.
A government-approved alternative to tampons, the first in years. It seems like the kind of story that might pique the media's interest. It's news-you-can-use, and studies have shown that women, who make up a majority of the population, are intensely curious about anything that could make feminine hygiene less burdensome.
But when the product, called Instead, was pitched to news directors and assignment editors at TV stations in the western United States, more than a third balked, fearing the subject matter might repel their viewers. It would be inappropriate for the dinner-hour broadcast, they said, and would be risky during the morning when kids are at home. It's a story better suited to newspapers or women's magazines — places where the audiences are "expecting" such material, they said.
That reaction raises the question of whether these news outlets are truly serving their viewers. Are heinous murders, sex crimes and other daily broadcast news fare any more palatable than menstruation? Are "Baywatch" or salacious made-for-TV movies any less offensive than a brief discussion about feminine hygiene?
"I did see some newsworthiness to [Instead]," says Melissa Moore, a producer of the morning show at KPTV, the United Paramount Network affiliate in Portland, Oregon. "But I thought it might make the viewer uncomfortable. I was trying to think of an appropriate way to discuss it but I couldn't. There are a lot of topics like that."
Ellis Levinson, the "Consumer Guy" at KNTV, an ABC affiliate in San Jose, detects a double standard. "If we can cover the Lorena Bobbitt story, then we can cover almost anything. I think it is about time we grow up," he says, noting that tampon commercials already air during soap operas. "To me, it is hypocritical to say, 'You can't cover this.' "
Carline Kaplan, president of Kaplan Communications Network, the company hired to market Instead on the West Coast, says the media's reaction caught her by surprise. "I have pitched dozens of new product and health care stories to the media over the past 10 years, and have conquered some tough topics like breast implants, penile implants and impotence," Kaplan says. "Pitching Instead and discussing menstruation was the most challenging topic I've dealt with yet, especially with broadcast media."
In at least one case, a station had trouble finding the "right" reporter to do the Instead story.
"Being a male, it wasn't the first thing to jump to the top of my story list," says Doug Nadvornick, news director at KPBX-FM radio in Spokane. A woman who works at the station told Nadvornick that she had tried Instead, a disposable cup that collects menstrual fluid rather than absorbing it, and swore by it. She encouraged him to do a story, and he considered it for the station's call-in health care program. But the story never aired.
"I have one woman reporter and I pushed it toward her," Nadvornick says. "She is old enough that she is not of reproductive age, so it didn't interest her. That may be another reason why the story didn't get done."
Some of the news directors and assignment editors said the intimate nature of the story was only one factor in their decision to reject it. They argue that it lacked a hard news angle and a local component, despite the fact that Kaplan Communications Network made local gynecologists available for interviews. Others were concerned about providing free advertising for the product. KNTV's Levinson, for example, said he passed on the story because Instead infomercials were airing at the time and he didn't want to add to the publicity blitz.
Reporters are constantly bombarded by new product pitches. Frequently, and with good reason, they decide that a specific product lacks credibility or is unlikely to be of widespread interest and opt not to cover it. While it remains to be seen whether Instead, created by the New York-based company Ultrafem Inc., will catch on, it has been selling briskly in the Pacific Northwest, where it was launched. By the middle of this year, Instead is expected to be available in stores in many parts of the country.
But what separates Instead from the typical rollout — a new toy or coffee cup holder, for example — is that it deals with a vital aspect of women's lives. And whether or not news directors can find a way to strip the product of its inherent sexuality, women would likely be interested in knowing that it exists.
That's what KTVB in Boise, Idaho, found out. After running a three-and-a-half minute Q&A with a gynecologist, the station got some 60 phone calls from women wanting more information about Instead. Co-anchor Gretchen Anderson used the segment to explore why major innovations in feminine hygiene are so rare. The only criticism of the report came from a couple of viewers who felt the interview was more of a promotional spot than news.
So why the skittishness at some stations? At least part of the reason, according to Richard Parker, a senior fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard, is that television has to answer to the federal government — to the Federal Communications Commission and members of Congress — while newspapers don't. And that makes it more conservative in its editorial decisions.
Citing the difficulty broadcasters had during the late '80s and early '90s in talking about the role of condoms in reducing the risk of AIDS, Parker likens the Instead controversy to what he calls the "Aaron Spelling vs. C. Everett Koop debate, in which Aaron Spelling and 'Jiggle TV' always win, and Everett Koop and a kind of public health, public responsibility approach to sexuality always lose."