You may not have seen the show “Diary of a Single Mom” co-starring Billy Dee Williams, but your tax dollars helped pay for it.
Through the federal economic stimulus program, a company owned by actor-director Robert Townsend was paid more than $230,000 to produce and direct the Web-based show, records show. Other production costs on the show paid to different vendors total more than $700,000.
The money came through an award by the Department of Commerce to One Economy Corp. for more than $28 million last year to help boost broadband Internet service in underserved areas across the country.
One Economy is using more than $1.5 million of that money to create programming such as “Diary of a Single Mom,” which the group says will help provide an incentive for people to connect to the Internet.
But taxpayer watchdogs say the government doesn’t belong in show business.
“The point of broadband was to create access and create the infrastructure for communities that do not have access,” said Ryan Alexander, president of the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense. “Creating content wouldn’t be what people in Congress thought of when voting on this.”
Even if the show is well-liked and delivers a good message, she said, the question is whether it could have happened without stimulus money. “Certainly, Robert Townsend is successful,” Ms. Alexander said. “Not that successful people shouldn’t be working; they should be. But they have access to capital.”
Phone calls to the agent for Mr. Townsend’s company, Townsend Entertainment Corp., which is based in Beverly Hills, Calif., were not returned this week. According to the federal grant reports, his company was paid for his services as producer and director.
In August 2009, about eight months before the One Economy grant was awarded, Mr. Townsend wrote about both the broadband program and his work producing the show.
“The Obama administration believes in the Internet’s power to restore the economy,” he wrote. “In fact, more than $7 billion of stimulus funds [have] been allocated to help bring broadband to low-income and ‘underserved’ populations. But the truth of the matter is, without relevant, engaging content, Internet access won’t deliver to its full potential.”
Mr. Townsend went on to say that the need for relevant online content became apparent when he teamed up with One Economy. Together, he wrote, they were producing a series called “Diary of a Single Mom.”
150,000 new subscribers
The president of One Economy, David Saunier, said Thursday that the group spends most of the money from the $28.5 million grant on wiring people to the Internet and on educating them on broadband access. In grant documents, One Economy says overall the money will help train 235,000 people and result in 150,000 new subscribers in unserved and underserved communities.
Mr. Saunier said a portion of the grant, which he estimated at between $1.5 million and $2 million, helps produce the sort of programming not available in mainstream media. He said a Pew Research Center study showed that many people who don’t use the Internet also don’t find online content relevant to their lives.
“It’s about maximizing the incentives to go online,” he said.
Mr. Saunier said programming also helps tell important stories about topics such as single mothers struggling to get by, and giving a “good and real look at the ramifications of teen pregnancy.”
The show appears on the website pic.tv, which is produced by One Economy. The site includes information for viewers on topics such as health care, tax help and employment. In 2009, it was voted Best Indie Soap by the Indie Soap Awards.
Mr. Saunier also said the Commerce Department closely scrutinized the group’s plans. The grant was awarded in 2010 to the group through the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).
“We went through a long due-diligence process with them,” he said.
Increase access and adoption
Asked how producing shows squares with the goals of the federal stimulus, Moira Vahey, a spokeswoman for the Commerce Department’s NTIA, said the broadband program “was created by the Recovery Act to increase broadband access and adoption.”
“As responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars, we are constantly working with each of our grantees to ensure their project expenses are reasonable, necessary and allowable under the grant,” Ms. Vahey said. “Additionally, NTIA’s oversight includes making sure that the money being spent is delivering on the goals laid out by the program.”
Tom Schatz, president of the Citizens Against Government Waste, said so many billions of dollars have been poured into broadband by the government that “now they’re in the production business.”
He also questioned whether a Web-based show will drive people to the Internet, saying the suggestion reminds him of the now-deceased Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, who angered taxpayer watchdogs by earmarking federal money for pet projects his home state.
“It’s the same argument Sen. Byrd used when building all those roads in West Virginia,” Mr. Schatz said. “If we build the roads, then people will come.”
Pete Sepp, vice president of the National Taxpayers Union, said the question of trying to increase interest and connectivity to broadband has been an issue in Washington for years.
“It comes down to the basic question of whether the public or private sector has a better grasp, not only to develop broadband, but to deliver content that would appeal to people,” he said. “In most cases, the private sector wins.
“The quality of the programming may no doubt be outstanding, but the question is whether this will be a catalyst that allows privately funded ventures to take over, or will it be an ongoing repository of tax dollars?” he said.
Mr. Saunier said it’s still early to tell how much impact shows such as “Diary of a Single Mom” have on the overall goals of the broadband program.
“The programming is still ongoing, and we’re just getting started in the evaluations,” he said.
According to grant reports, One Economy so far has invoiced the government $18.9 million of the $28.5 million awarded under the grant, with 142.47 jobs created. The jobs include field supervisors, sales representatives and program managers, as well as numerous production-related positions, such as producers, cast members, casting director and an executive assistant to Mr. Townsend.
Officials at One Economy said the grant wasn’t primarily about creating jobs. Instead, they said, the primary purpose was to increase broadband access and adoption, as well as to increase the number of people interacting with content “local and relevant to their lives.”
The group said it has spent around $825,000 in the last quarter from the grant on salaries and fringe benefits for the jobs they have created through the stimulus.