WFLA-TV Tampa, Fla., has decided to be more upfront about its "pay-for-play" policy, literally. In the wake of criticism of paid segments in a local morning show, the Media General station will put an ad ID before each of the segments, according Eric Land, president and general manager.
The criticism included threats last week of congressional action from powerful Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and FCC action from Commission Democrats Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps.
While continuing to stand by the "infopayment" policy and the show, Land conceded that "viewers who do not watch the closing credits might not realize which segments on the program were paid advertising and which were not." As a result, paid ad segments on Daytime, which is sandwiched between Today and local news, will be identified immediately preceding the segments. That's in addition to the current identification in the closing credits.
Parent Media General also released a statement: "As a result of news and editorial comment in the Washington Post and subsequent reaction in various quarters, we determined to label the program more clearly so that any confusion would be eliminated."
Among those "various quarters" was McCain, who called on the FCC to investigate whether it needs to toughen its rules on program sponsorship. In several hearings, the Senate Commerce Committee chairman has raked broadcasters over the coals for a variety of practices, including centralcasting and "pay for play" in radio.
In a letter to FCC Chairman Michael Powell, McCain asked "whether you believe congressional action is necessary to ensure broadcasters do not continue to deceive viewers through such 'sham' television programs as Daytime." Land has defended the practice, saying Daytime is entertainment, not news The FCC plans to tell McCain the issue will be addressed as part of the commission's planned localism notice of inquiry, announced last August.
Adelstein in a speech to the Federal Communications Bar Association, said "It's time for the FCC to probe whether our rules adequately deter potentially new forms of payola. We need to determine whether the public is being deceived, thinking a story or product review was broadcast on its own merit when in fact it was a paid commercial advertisement or a cross-promotional plug for the media company's other products."
In a meeting with reporters, Copps also called for a probe. Linking the WFLA-TV issue to consolidated newsrooms that would come from mergers, he said, "That's one hell of a synergy and not one that's in the public interest."