Viacom/MTV Networks' "The Debate Show" Fraud

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To: Ip <>
From: David Farber <>
Subject: [IP] Warning to IP Readers: When "The Debate Show" Calls -- Hang Up!
Date: Sun, 20 Jun 2004 09:32:50 -0400

Begin forwarded message:

From: Lauren Weinstein <>
Date: June 20, 2004 1:26:40 AM EDT
Subject: Warning to IP Readers: When "The Debate Show" Calls -- Hang Up!


The L.A. Times article (avoid folding the long URL!):,1,5581013.story?coll=la-home-headlines
online for now (registration required) tells the story of
Tom Freston, chairman of Viacom's MTV Networks.  The article
suggests that Tom's style for MTV et al. might be the saving grace
for Paramount and perhaps the rest of the entertainment industry.

If MTV's model is the solution, we're in for big trouble.
Hear my saga and avoid the fate that almost befell yours truly --
experts and spokespeople in the IP readership, you could be next!

A few weeks ago, I got a call from a producer who identified
herself as being with MTV Networks' "The Debate Project"
-- who wanted to book me onto a new debate format show in production,
to be taped a few days hence.  She described the show (which she
never actually specifically named) as oriented toward young
people about important topics, with guests who were experts
in their respective fields.  They wanted me to debate a
known spammer (who they wouldn't identify at the time)
regarding the scourge of spam.  It would be fun she implied,
since the audience would of course be on my side.

While MTV Net producing a show like this seemed a bit odd, it's
not unheard of for them to do topical programming.  She assured
me the program would definitely air on an MTV Network but wasn't
sure which one yet.  Odd, but I've gotten stranger calls from
more ordinary news-oriented programs.

They sealed the deal by promising to send a car so I wouldn't have
to hassle with driving in to Hollywood from The Valley through
late Friday afternoon traffic, and even said they'd throw
in $200 (egads -- payment for a "news" appearance -- unheard of
in my experience!)

OK, I'll bite -- sounds more interesting than typical interviews
anyway.  Then followed more phone calls from other staffers
questioning me at length on the topic of spam, an e-mailed
message with similar questions, and finally all was set to go.
They were really excited about my joining them the next day they
kept saying, and would call me in the morning before
sending the car.

That same Thursday night, with the show scheduled for Friday,
I was increasingly uncomfortable.  There was a bad feeling
I just couldn't shake, an almost animal instinct of something
amiss that I couldn't put my finger on.

When the show had originally called, I had done some
cursory googling but couldn't find anything relevant.
This didn't seem too unusual for a show in production
but not yet on air.  Now I started googling in depth.

At first I found nothing again.  But then I started working
backwards from the contact phone numbers I had
for the show's production staff.  This time I hit pay dirt,
and while the pages unscrolled on my screen a cold chill
ran down my spine.

As the recent, angry testimonials I had found recounted,
with a matching of modus operandi that left no chance
for error, the show on which I was about to appear was a fraud.

Not really a debate at all, the show is actually
a program for Comedy Central (yes, an MTV/Viacom network)
called "Crossballs" -- and its sole purpose is the embarrassment
and humiliation of the expert guests who are brought on
expecting a legitimate discussion program.

Crossballs is a rigged "reality" show, where real guests, who
have been kept in the dark about the show's real format, are
paired off against actors (playing the debate opponents) for the
amusement of the live audience.  The stories I read from
persons recently on the show included descriptions of
crude, sexually-oriented verbal attacks (and worse, like
being handed various sexual "apparatus") and concerns
that their reputations would be ruined once the shows aired.

As the alien commander said in "Plan 9 From Outer Space":
"That was TOO close!"

In a few hours I was scheduled to go on that show.  If it
were aired live I could have had some fun, since I now knew
what was going on but they didn't know that I knew.  But
since it was taped there was no point.  If I didn't react
the way they expected, my segment would no doubt be removed
or perhaps edited in some perverse way.

I left a late night voicemail message with the producer,
cancelling my appearance with "extreme prejudice"...

Of course, I never heard from them again.  No calls came.
No car arrived.  No explanations.  No apologies.

I had escaped Viacom's reality TV trap.  The other guests
scheduled for that Friday afternoon were probably not as lucky.

So hear me oh readers of IP!  When the e-mail arrives or the
phone rings, and an earnest-sounding guy or gal asks you to
lend your expertise to the betterment of young people in
a late afternoon debate deep in the heart of Hollywood...
Turn off the computer.  Hang up the phone.  Unplug the network
connection.  It's probably MTV/Viacom calling from the brave
new world of "newsertainment" -- and unless you get your kicks
from being humiliated before an audience of millions, this is
one show you definitely don't want to be thinking back on years
from now.

One can't help but feel sorry for the legit news folks over at
CBS' "60 Minutes" and other excellent news programs, who must
share the Viacom name with the happy-go-lucky gang sucking victims
into fake "news" shows over on Comedy Central.

As long as this message is, it's merely the Executive Summary.
Anyone interested in the gory details should feel free to contact
me directly.

Take care!

Lauren Weinstein or or
Tel: +1 (818) 225-2800
Co-Founder, PFIR - People For Internet Responsibility -
Co-Founder, Fact Squad -
Co-Founder, URIICA - Union for Representative International Internet
     Cooperation and Analysis -
Moderator, PRIVACY Forum -
Member, ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy
Lauren's Blog:


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