At WCBS-TV, News Ruse at 11

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WCBS-TV New York's 11 p.m. newscast earned a lot of interest last week, but it's not the kind it can take to the bank.

In what Lew Leone, the Viacom station's general manager, describes as an experiment he is not going to repeat, the station sold all the spots in its Monday 11 p.m. newscast to Foxtons, a discount real estate firm. What's more, the commercials were in the form of extended-length infomercial that looked like a reporter interviewing the firm's chief executive.

The effect, Leone seemed to agree, was like wedging infomercials into the newscast. "It didn't violate any broadcast standards, but the execution is probably not ideal so we will not do it again in that format," he told BROADCASTING & CABLE. He did not rule out the concept of a single sponsor for the WCBS-TV newscast, though.

The Foxtons buy amounted to 10 minutes of time, with the spots divided into the normal five breaks. "Parts of it looked like an interview format," Leone conceded, noting, though, that large graphic "bugs" indicated that the segments were commercials. "I was satisfied that it couldn't be confused with anything other than what it was."

But Foxtons also bought some radio tune-in ads on co-owned Infinity radio stations directing listeners to tune to the 11 p.m. news for the Foxtons story but without mentioning that the "story" was a string of commercials rather than news.

That was a mistake, said Leone, adding that he asked that the radio spots clearly identify the Foxtons spots as ads. Infinity, he said, pulled the tune-in spots when he learned that they had not been modified. "The way I vetted it and what I approved," he said, "was 'Tune in to Channel 2 to watch our TV commercials."

WCBS-TV got viewer complaints and some negative feedback on its test from the New York Daily News, which noted that the radio ads, combined with the format of the TV ads, could have led viewers to believe they were getting news interviews.

In 2002, Foxtons was an anchor advertiser in the Viacom Plus effort to pitch radio and outdoor as a cross-platform buy. Foxtons said on its Web site that it spent $10 million in that effort to target the New York market.

The buy was made through the station, not Viacom Plus, Leone said, adding, "Our new business group is talking to as many people as they possibly can to try to get them into television." Foxtons probably paid more than $160,000 for the spots.

The increasing financial pressure on newscasts has become problematic, said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "We're seeing more and more examples of stations trying to generate new revenue sources from activities that push the line between news and sales."

Beyond the confusion the ads may have caused, Rosenstiel said, he's troubled that CBS would sell its local news to just one advertiser. He said it "goes against one of the core concepts that protected the newsroom's credibility, which is to spread the influence across so many advertisers that no one had any undue influence." Otherwise, it may seem to viewers that a newscast is "mortgaged" to one advertiser.

Bob Steele, The Poynter Institute's resident scholar for journalism values, also sees several problems with the news infomercial. "We know from multiple examples that there has been a blurring of the line between news and advertising. If we further blur that line or, some would suggest, even erase the line, then we are undermining the integrity of the journalism and the reputation of the station."

He said running the bug is helpful but not sufficient. Given that there are so many bugs and icons on the screen, he pointed out, viewers can't always process the information. In addition, even with a bug, "it's important that advertisements not look like any form of news product. They should not be produced with journalistic techniques."