The D.C. Socialite vs. ‘The Grill Sergeant’

When the Pentagon tried to save its awful TV channel, it called in Washington's most infamous TV producer-turned-party-thrower.

Photo: Paul Morigi/Getty Images
Photo: Paul Morigi/Getty Images

Sgt. 1st Class Brad Turner was in his element. Standing in a supermarket, with a military band nearby, the man otherwise known as the "Grill Sergeant" was demonstrating how to make a tasty jambalaya. "There’s no magical formula," he bellowed in his Southern twang, playing to the camera during an episode of his eponymous show. "If you don’t have any good taste, then this is not going to work for you."

The Grill Sergeants was the cheeky cooking show with a clever name that was for years produced by the Pentagon. It brought cheers and jeers. But none of that mattered since the show was produced when times were good and defense money, like Turner’s jambalaya, poured forth.

The Grill Sergeants, like many other TV programs produced by the U.S. Defense Department, is no more. And soon, the Defense Department’s broadcast network — the one that showed the Pentagon-approved cooking show — may itself be part of military history. Budget cuts and fewer blank checks mean the Pentagon needs to rethink nice-to-have services that were once a given. And the Pentagon Channel, as the network is known, is likely on the brink of a major downsizing, Defense Department sources say.

"The Pentagon Channel is one of the few if not the only one where you can communicate directly to service members and their families," said Bryan Whitman, a spokesman for the Pentagon. "That doesn’t mean we can’t find better ways of doing business."

A while back, there had been high hopes for the Pentagon Channel. Fancy, pearl-draped hopes.

Washington society mavens know Tammy Haddad as the bubbly party-thrower and socialite whose prominence peaks each spring for the celebrity-politico-and-journalist-laden brunch she holds before the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Haddad was recently highlighted in Mark Leibovich’s This Towna book about the intersection of politics, power, and the media — and was portrayed as part of the incestuous, schmooze-and-use culture of Washington. But at the Defense Department, she’s also known for her work for the Pentagon’s public affairs office, which contracted with Haddad, a former television producer, a couple of years back to consult on its media operations, including the department’s internal broadcast network, the Pentagon Channel.

Only the advice didn’t seem to pay off, for whatever reason, and now budget cuts mean her recommendations are "OBE" in military parlance — overcome by events. According to defense officials, Haddad, a fundraiser, events organizer, and media consultant, was paid about $92,000 for an 11-month advisory project in which she acted as a "programming consultant" for the Pentagon Channel, whose shows were regularly evoking ridicule from Congress members and even some military folks. Haddad, a former television producer for CNN, NBC and other media organizations, is thought to have a keen eye when it comes to communications and production values. She was hired by the Pentagon’s top public affairs office at the time, Doug Wilson, "to provide expert advice and recommendations" on how to modernize and expand the Pentagon Channel’s programming, according to a Defense Department spokesman. She worked as a consultant for the Pentagon officially between October 2010 and September 2011.

Haddad had grand plans for the channel, making recommendations to infuse it with more sophistication and cool in an attempt to appeal to young and older audiences alike — a mix of VH1 and the History Channel.

Haddad was vague on the changes she actually recommended, citing the time that has elapsed since she worked on the project. But she told Foreign Policy she recommended a variety of "production changes" and provided programming and distribution advice, some of which she thinks the Pentagon agreed to implement. "I looked at how they did all their different shows, who did them, and how to create a variety of programming," Haddad told FP. "Also, how do you talk to your own people, the military; how do you talk to the world; and how do you use your best talent to deliver your programming?" she said.

But it’s unclear her advice took the Pentagon Channel to new highs. In fact, the channel seemed already in decline when Haddad arrived to do her 11-month-long analysis.

[UPDATE: Doug Wilson writes to FP that Haddad was hired to do an in-depth analysis of the Channel because even at the time, the "handwriting was on the wall" with regard to shrinking resources and her professional qualifications as a former TV producer for MSNBC, NBC, Fox and CNN – bringing ‘Larry King Live’ to that network in 1985, for example, gave her the kind of critical eye the Channel needed. "Tammy Haddad was not hired because of the events she organizes or who she does or doesn’t invite to them.  To state or allege otherwise is simply wrong.  We hired her because of her proven experience and expertise in television management and production in broadcast, network and cable," he wrote in a note to FP after this story first ran Friday.  "Tammy did what we asked her to do.    She looked at the Pentagon Channel overall and at all of the various programs – how they were developed, what the purpose was for each program.   She focused on whether the Pentagon Channel could continue to be a vehicle to reach military audiences most effectively at a time of media and Internet proliferation and competition – and, if so, how."]

In addition to The Grill Sergeants, the Pentagon Channel at one time had all kinds of fare, including Fit for Duty, Armed Forces Boxing, and the euphemistically titled FNG, described as a 30-minute lifestyle show about travel and electronics "For the New Guy." But many of those shows either had been canceled or were poised to be when Haddad arrived. Today they are gone and, like bad episodes of Married with Children, only live in the universe of the rerun. Today, the Pentagon Channel’s only current programming includes news, military briefings, and a handful of other specialized programs for troops, including some on suicide prevention.

The Pentagon Channel is different from American Forces Network (AFN), which is the primary way through which the Pentagon connects to troops, especially those serving in isolated areas overseas. AFN has a more must-see quality, broadcasting sports events, first-run movies, and news programming from CNN, Fox, and others. There are no plans to significantly change AFN.

The Pentagon Channel, on the other hand, was conceived as a way to get information to military audiences across the United States and beyond. But now that audience uses the Internet, social media, and other forms of communication to get a lot of the news and programming they need. And for an audience straddling multiple time zones, broadcasting a single channel around the clock may seem too old school.

The Pentagon Channel falls under the Pentagon’s Defense Media Activity (DMA), which also includes news publications like Stars and Stripes and magazines for individual services — Airman, Marines, Soldiers, and the Navy’s All Hands. Many of those products, however, are a throwback to a different time, when service members and other interested parties got their news and reading entertainment from ink and paper. But changes in the media environment are forcing the Pentagon to look more broadly at a lot of those kinds of information products. Troops, like other news consumers, want information and other programming that’s more in real time and on demand. Although the Pentagon Channel’s future is still under review, the Pentagon is thinking about changing the channel into a completely web-based product in the future, standardizing its format, and streamlining some of its programming.

A few things are driving change at the channel. Both the fiscal environment and the media environment have morphed considerably, defense officials said; there are fewer discretionary dollars to be spent on nice-to-haves. And obvious changes to technology and the media environment mean the value of an internal broadcast channel is less than what it was. Ray Shepherd, the new director of the Pentagon’s DMA, has been charged with doing a top-to-bottom review of the directorate, including giving a special look at the channel.

And there’s money to be saved too. The Pentagon Channel is played on about 370 cable stations around the United States, but those companies include it for free in their programming, at no cost to the government. Sending the signal to satellites around the world, however, costs the Pentagon about $2.3 million per year. Yet it could move to a more standardized broadcast format and reduce that cost dramatically, to $700,000 per year, a defense official said. The overall costs of the channel are about $5 million per year. "We think there are ways, if you move to the more on-demand, podcasting kinds of models, there will be savings to be achieved there too," said Whitman, the Pentagon spokesman.

Any cuts to the Pentagon Channel’s operations won’t likely face too much criticism on Capitol Hill. The Grill Sergeants, in fact, had become a poster child for wasteful spending after it was highlighted in a report titled "Department of Everything," by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). And Haddad’s hope to give the Pentagon Channel a little more sizzle seems to have burned out.

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