Editorial: Credible Threat

A few years back, a salesman at a TV station in
Chattanooga pitched advertisers on the chance to
buy a flattering story about their company in its newscasts. As we recall, the price was $15,000 per.

Once that sales pitch became public knowledge, the station was rightly
and roundly pilloried. The station pleaded ignorance, which may well have
been true, but was not a defense then and is not one now.

We were reminded of that story last week when Free Press filed a complaint
at the FCC about “fake news,” pointing to a paid-for health segment
in a newscast and a morning news segment touting toys but with the pitch
coming from someone compensated by toy companies.

The pressure to find “creative” ways to get more ad dollars is always there
in a competitive business—not something anyone in the print business
needs reminding of, by the way. But for TV stations, the triple whammy of
the cyclical downer of a tanked economy, the systemic threat wrought by
online competition, and the ease with which commercials can be bypassed
by DVR-wielding, multitasking media grazers has ratcheted up the pressure.

The FCC under then-Chairman Kevin Martin proposed toughening
disclosure rules for paid consideration, but never followed through. The
current Democratic majority could be more inclined to follow through or
get even tougher if there are sufficient examples of broadcasters failing to
include a disclosure, or honoring the teeny-tiny letter of the law with need-a-magnifying-glass, blink-and-you-missed-it disclosures.

It would not likely be atop the commission’s to-do list, which is long and
broadband-centric. But the complaint is fair notice that folks with the time
and inclination are watching, taking notes and talking to the FCC.

Product placement in entertainment shows is one thing. It can be done
poorly or well, and we know writers don’t love having to work sandwichcookie
references into their plots, or write a Corvette into a show as a supporting
character. But so long as there is disclosure, it is inside the FCC lines.

But that is different from compromising the news product, whose currency
is credibility as well as dollar bills. Unfortunately, at least for resisting
the temptation to sell out the local news, those newscasts are the biggest
money-makers for stations and fill increasingly more airtime. So, whether it
is working branded items onto the anchor desk or covering the sale at a local
car dealership as though it were a breaking news item, or even (very poorly)
masking a promo for a primetime network show like Hawaii Five-0 as a travel
tips segment, there are seemingly endless opportunities to be led astray.

Broadcasters have to resist that temptation. Trust takes years to build, but
can be lost in an instant.