National Empowerment Television
National Empowerment Television (NET), also known as America's Voice, was a cable TV network designed to rapidly mobilize conservative followers for grassroots lobbying. It was created by Paul Weyrich, a key strategist for the paleoconservative movement. At its peak, it claimed to reach more than 11 million homes.
Like many conservatives, Weyrich believed that the mainstream news and entertainment media exhibited a liberal bias. In an attempt to help counter this, he mobilized groups and donors who were equally concerned by the supposed lack of journalistic integrity. Coordinated by the Free Congress Foundation (FCF), they launched a Washington, D.C.-based satellite television network called National Empowerment Television (NET). Its logo featured a square of nine dots, referring to a puzzle that cannot be solved without drawing lines "outside the box." NET went on air for the first time on December 6, 1993.
Many in academia and the mainstream media roundly criticized NET. For instance, 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."
Indeed, in an attempt to circumvent mainstream media opposition, NET went to associate broadcasters, local broadcasting channels for television syndication, and other non-traditional means of marketing. Thus, NET was able to become a broader resource for the U.S. social and economic conservative movements. Many organizations which had been traditionally shunned by major broadcasters and advertisers bought the rights to air programs on the channel, including the Christian Coalition, the Cato Institute, Accuracy in Media, and others.
Nevertheless, the network had interests on a broad base of issues. For instance, under the management of Weyrich the channel was involved discussing – on programs entitled American on Track and The New Electric Railway Journal (affiliated with a print magazine of the same name) – public and mass transit issues, including local rail and interstate mass transit and the deleterious effects of automotive-oriented planning on environmental, economic, and urban quality of life. There were also programs and segments on family, community, and social issues that featured writers, local community activists and representatives, and academic leaders. Other programs focused on issues important to FCF activity: Endangered Liberties discussed privacy issues; Legal Notebook emphasized judicial nominations and court trends, and Next Revolution covered activities within social conservatism. The most popular program was Direct Line with Weyrich, in which the host interviewed lawmakers and other prominent figures live, permitted the public to call in directly with questions and comments, with Weyrich delivering commentary in the final segment. Additionally, the channel had programming on culinary and etiquette issues, even occasional segments devoted to wines and music.
In all of its programming, the management team under Weyrich sought a highly professionalized approach to both its advocacy and journalistic programming. Consequently, the channel featured high production values and cost a great deal. The FCF claimed that various ideologically liberal organizations and individuals and industry competitors pressured many advertising firms to withdraw or withhold support. The result was that revenue could not meet operating costs, and in response to donor and investor pressure for a clearer focus, FCF dropped all programs not directly related to public policy and conservative activism, and rebranded the channel as NET: The Conservative NewsTalk Network, with the initials NET no longer standing for anything, and the nine-dot logo replaced with one evoking the U.S. Capitol dome. It also began news reports and updates (akin to the likes of CNN, albeit keeping its ideological principles at the forefront), and a full-fledged investigative journalism program. However, the high cost of this strategy, perceived obstacles for entering the marketplace, and other factors combined to bring NET down by 1997.
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 and Heather Higgins
- Capitol Watch, hosted by Burton Pines and Council Nedd II
- Direct Line with Paul Weyrich
- Borderline, a forum for discussion of conservative views on immigration policy.
- The Cato Forum, which provided the Cato Institute with an ongoing 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 Family Research Council.
- On Target with the National Rifle Association.
- Science Under Siege, co-produced with the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
NET and Philip Morris
A number of detractors of NET have consistently referred to its support by Philip Morris. In a 1993 internal strategy paper, Morris canvassed options for increasing NET's adverse coverage of 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 Morris was hoping to ask NET to assist advancing its corporate agenda, it was willing to return the favor to NET. "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.
Morris' funding to NET was extremely small. A March 1994 internal strategy document by Morris revealed that it spent only $200,000 to help fund NET. One proposed miniseries 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". Morris planned another miniseries critiquing the proposed Clinton health care plan, as a part of a broad-based effort by health care providers and businesses of all types to stop the nationalization of American health care.
NET and donor intervention and controversy
NET was also a broader resource for U.S. social and economic conservatism. Many organizations bought the rights to air programs on the channel. This was part of NET's strategy of flouting mainstream media. However, the strategy had flaws, as each associate added more oversight on NET's finances and programming segmentation, thereby diluting the focus of NET. For instance, Philip Morris 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. Although Morris decided against such a strategy, the report delineated the potential hazards of relying exclusively on associate broadcasters.
Nevertheless, Weyrich and others remained steadfast in their programming orientation and optimism. 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 live 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". Additionally, the network began inviting opposing viewpoints on a number of programs, in order to increase viewer interest. 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".
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. 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.
According to NET's proposal, its first year budget was $5.6 million with $1 million to be raised from eight 'associate producers' with advertising scheduled to bring in only $365,000 and on-air fundraising another $262,000. NET hoped any shortfall would be eliminated by grants and pledges from unspecified sources.
In 1995, Weyrich wrote to its associate broadcasters to inform them 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 more readily identifiable as a public policy organization", he explained. In execution though, the "PNTN" sub-branding was very rarely used, and "NET" continued to be used on-air and by providers carrying the network to identify it.
High costs bring changes
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. Despite the initial support of its original associate broadcasters, it was only enough to cover the operating costs on a continuing basis. Further, the fears of most big business corporations against sponsoring the network left the network isolated. When it failed to get financial support on a continuing basis, NET split off as a private business and sought private funds.
FCF planned a new strategy to make NET a self-sustaining, even profitable, commercial enterprise, rather than a money-losing tool of outreach. However, the FCF blamed the hostility of other large media and agitation by liberal groups for refusal of support from the big advertising firms. Without enough revenue to cover its cost, the corporate board forced Weyrich to stop new segment programming and focus on retooling the network for a relaunch.
In a decision he later came to regret bitterly, Weyrich, under pressure from the associate broadcasters, turned over day-to-day operation of the channel to Robert Sutton, an industry veteran who had been successful with other startups. It relaunched in the spring of 1997 as a for-profit TV channel called "America's Voice", with another $20 million in seed money. However, Sutton came from the ranks of mainstream media and refused to agree with the ideological analysis that the television industry was failing to meet the demands of conservative and traditionalist viewers. A power struggle ensued, with Sutton persuading the network's board to force out Weyrich in a hostile takeover.
With Weyrich gone, under Sutton, the channel abandoned its conservative identity, marketing itself merely as a non-ideological forum for the public to make its views known to policymakers, akin to the call-in programs on C-SPAN. However, the network retained four conservative programs funded by the FCF and a few remaining supporters, but it had to pay to retain them. Finally, further pressure from advertisers and larger broadcasters allegedly forced even those to be removed.
With much of its original viewership alienated, and also with the rise of Fox News Channel as a popular and well-funded source of conservative opinion on cable television, financial support under Sutton collapsed, and Dish Network dropped it. Eventually America's Voice was sold, becoming "The Renaissance Network" (TRN), airing on a few broadcast stations, mainly UHF and low-power channels. Facing ruin, TRN brought back FCF content, but it was not enough to save the operation.
FCF has also experimented with radio broadcasting, airing weekly taped programs on the Liberty Works Radio Network and other outlets.
Today, the FCF offers interviews, soundbites, and commentary readings on its website FCF News on Demand.
In 2000, America's Voice was purchased by E-Cine, a Dallas-based multimedia company, which briefly returned Weyrich to the airwaves before succumbing to bankruptcy later that year.
Other uses of the name "America's Voice"
- Thomas Goetz, "I'm Not a Reporter (http://www.cjr.org/year/94/5/gop.asp[permanent dead link])," Columbia Journalism Review, September/October 1994.
- New project (http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/tid/blz55e00), Bates No 2046662829, April 1993 (estimated), page 3.
- Philip Morris, "Tobacco strategy (http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/tid/dtv34e00)", Bates No 2022887066, March 1994.
- Paul Weyrich, letter to Dr Thomas Borelli Philip Morris (http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/tid/bsw87d00), Bates No 2046563261, September 20, 1994.
- National Empowerment Television, "Changing the Picture (http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/tid/xsw87d00)", Bates No 2046563238, September 1994, page 1.
- Alan Bash, Calling into question deals that give Gingrich airtime (http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/tid/stw87d00)", Bates No 2046563211, USA Today, February 28, 1995, page 3D.
- Paul Weyrich, "My $50,000 dinner with Newt (http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/tid/atw87d00)", Bates No 2046563214, The Washington Times, February 10, 1995.
- National Empowerment Television, "Changing the Picture (http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/tid/xsw87d00)", Bates No 2046563239, September 1994, page 12.
- Paul Weyrich, "letter to Steven Parrish (http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/tid/ctw87d00)", Bates No 2046563217, January 16, 1995.
- Paul M. Weyrich, "Letter to Dr Thomas Borelli (http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/tid/euw87d00)", Bates No 2045633155, April 12, 1995.
- Diana J. Weyrich, "letter to Dr Thomas Borelli (http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/tid/otw87d00)", Bates No 2046563181, May 18, 1995.
- Lawrence Morahan, "Conservative Icon Weyrich Warns 'Moral Minority' Still Dwindling (http://www.conservativenews.org/Politics/archive/200201/POL20020114b.html)," Conservative News Service, January 14, 2002.
- National Empowerment Television at SourceWatch