Media General Supports 'Infopayment' Practice
Tampa station's show sells segments to advertisers
By John Eggerton -- Broadcasting & Cable, 11/2/2003 7:00:00 PM
A Tampa, Fla., television station's pay-for-play morning show is causing controversy—or at least debate—about blurring the line between information and infomercials.
Earlier this month, Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz noted in a story that WFLA-TV's Daytime show, which follows NBC's Today show in that market, sells some of its interview segments, disclosing them as paid programming at the end of the show. The next day, the paper's editorial page decried the practice as "emblematic of the increasingly shaky ethical proscription against linking news and cash."
That set off Media General Chairman J. Stewart Bryan III, who fired off a letter to the paper, defending WFLA-TV's selling of interviews in its entertainment/infomercial hybrid Daytime program. His main defense: The station doesn't call Daytime a news show.
"WFLA has kept Daytime visibly separate from WFLA's news shows," Bryan wrote. "No WFLA journalists are involved in any element of Daytime. The show uses none of our news sets and includes no news or weather cut-ins. Its style, appearance and personnel are clearly separate from our news content. The fact that our entertainment program contains paid or sponsored content in no way breaks new ground."
In a program viewed by BROADCASTING & CABLE, there was a paid story about new cars offered by a local dealer, including an interview with a salesman by an enthusiastic host. Other segments seemed cheery and entertaining, but it was hard to determine whether they were simply features or paid segments.
According to a Media General spokeswoman, some of its other stations are considering starting and selling their own versions of Daytime, although none is past the talking stage.
WFLA-TV General Manager Eric Land makes no apologies for the show. "To suggest that the program is paid-for journalism is absolutely untrue," he said. He did say, in light of the Post story and editorial, that "as a routine course of business, we review all our policies from time to time. If we decide that we need more, different, other labeling on the program, we'll look at it." Currently, there is a disclaimer identifying the ad segments at the end of the program.
"The show is a terrific program. It has exceeded our expectations ratingwise, contentwise and financially," Land said, pointing out that it is often No. 1 in its time period. On the mixing of paid and non-paid segments, he said it is "nearly impossible not to discern the difference."
Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, is concerned that viewers may not be as clear on the separation as Land asserts. A disclaimer at the end of the show, Rosenstiel said, supposes that viewers will necessarily stay for the end.
The station may realize some short-term financial gain from the show, he said, but, "if the net effect of doing that show is to make people suspicious about what is on your news programs, about whether those interviews are bought and paid for, you may have done some real harm, financially, to your station."
One Media General general manager, who asked not to be identified, said he had checked out the show in the past and liked what he saw, although he was unaware of the paid interviews. "We're looking for ways to develop programs that more than just one station could make use of." About the pay-for-play element, he said he could understand concerns about potential viewer confusion but also could see the bottom-line attractiveness to Media General.
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