WGBH Winces at Frontline Voice’s Pitch

Frontline narrator Will Lyman often lends his smooth baritone to other programs besides the PBS documentary series he’s narrated since 1982. But Frontline’s producers at WGBH Boston said he should not have lent his unmistakable voice to an advocacy video on Internet regulatory policy.

In the video, Lyman warned of a coming data deluge on behalf of the Internet Innovation Alliance, a group that includes AT&T and Nortel. The alliance argued that only a hands-off regulatory policy and investment in broadband infrastructure can avert such a flood -- familiar arguments made by opponents of mandatory network-neutrality legislation.

After seeing the five-minute spot on The Nationmagazine’s Web site, net-neutrality advocate Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy alerted PBS ombudsman Michael Getler.

"Frontline, of course, holds a special place in television news in the United States," Chester wrote. "Corporate or other sponsors who are promoting one agenda or another should not be permitted to use news-connected personnel to provide legitimacy for their efforts." Getler agreed.

Frontline producers, it turns out, also agreed. Senior publicist Diane Buxton told B&C that while Lyman is a free-lancer who does voice work for several ad campaigns, his agreement with Frontline prevents him from voicing public-affairs documentaries or political advertising.

"Mr. Lyman agrees that this was a mistake and wasn’t aware that it was an advocacy piece until it was brought to his attention," Buxton said. "We all agree that the recognizable voice of Frontline should not be affiliated with any kind of advocacy or political effort, and we have taken steps to ensure that this will not happen in the future."