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Paid Airtime Controversy

Apr 7, 2003  •  Post A Comment

The only thing extraordinary about Central New York Live!-a rather ordinary hour-long talk and news program that began airing earlier this year at 5 p.m. weeknights on WTVH-TV in Syracuse, N.Y.-is that the show is charging local businesspeople as much as $600 to be interviewed on the air.
Employees of financial planning firms, car dealerships and fashion shops have paid to be interviewed on CNY Live! Their appearances have ignited a simmering controversy over the ethics of this practice, which has highlighted the blurring boundaries between news and entertainment on television and spotlighted the economic challenges of running a local station, particularly in small markets such as Syracuse.
Critics have railed against WTVH, arguing that the practice violates the most basic journalistic ethics. “It compromises journalistic independence,” complained Kelly McBride, a member of the ethics faculty at the Poynter Institute.
But Rob Selwyn, special adviser to the board of directors of Granite Broadcasting Corp., which owns WTVH, said worries about journalistic integrity are misplaced because Central New York Live! is an entertainment show. “No one in the news department ever gets close to them [the paid interviews],” he said.
WKBW-TV, a Granite station in Buffalo, N.Y., airs a morning show, A.M. Buffalo, and an afternoon show, Western New York Live!, that regularly charge for interviews, Mr. Selwyn said.
A distant third in local news ratings, WTVH, a CBS affiliate, launched Central New York Live! earlier this year. The show essentially employs a morning talk show format.
CNY Live! features Donna Adamo, a former WTVH news anchor, as its host. Like a talk show host, she emcees the show from a couch, not from a traditional news desk. A standard anchor desk appears only during regular breaks for news and weather, which are delivered from a separate set.
Not a News Program
Mr. Selwyn argues that the setup clearly indicates that the program is not a news broadcast. He also stresses that the paid interview segments, which are handled by Ms. Adamo, are clearly defined as such. When such a paid interview occurs, a legend is superimposed on the screen reading, “This segment is a paid sponsorship.”
Critics remain unconvinced by these arguments. Eric Burns, host of Fox News Channel’s Fox News Watch, wrote an op-ed piece excoriating WTVH’s attempt to call the paid interviews part of an entertainment program.
In a piece for Fox News Channel Views on Foxnews.com, he wrote, “How can a lawyer’s comments on legal matters be considered `entertainment’? How can a car dealer’s analysis of automotive matters be considered `entertainment’? How can a financial planner’s advice on investments be considered `entertainment’?”
Others argued that that the show’s time slot and personnel confuse the viewer, first because CNY Live! airs in a traditional news time slot and second because the host is known as an anchor.
“I think most of the public associates [Ms. Adamo] with news,” said Jim Lutton, VP and general manager of WSTM-TV, the NBC affiliate in Syracuse. “I know that her status has changed, but I don’t know how the public would know her status has changed. They’re used to watching her on the weekend newscast.”
“If they have a news segment in an entertainment show, there needs to be a way to clearly separate the two,” Poynter’s Ms. McBride said. “They need to show, `This is a news segment, this part of the broadcast is not compromised.’ And they need to help the viewer clearly differentiate between the two, because their credibility is in question if the viewer can’t tell the difference.”
Theresa Underwood, VP and general manager of WIXT-TV, the ABC affiliate in Syracuse, added, “From a credibility perspective, when a station allows an advertiser to control content, there’s the question of credibility and objectivity. Our advertisers are an important part of the station’s economics, but our advertisers do not control our content.”
Clearly, the businesspeople paying to be interviewed exercise some control over content on CNY Live! Luther Conant, the owner of an East Syracuse, N.Y.-based financial planning firm, described the how he prepares Ms. Adamo for his regular paid segment: “Donna, here’s three questions. You start with those, and I’ll take it from there.”
Mr. Conant said he sees no problem with the practice. “My position on it is that if it’s done professionally there’s nothing wrong with what we’re doing or what they’re doing … as long as we’re bringing quality information, good information and stuff they can’t get on the 6 o’clock news.”
Advertisers Committed
Despite a largely negative story in the local newspaper, the Syracuse Post Standard, on paying for interviews on the show, Mr. Conant and other advertisers remain committed to appearing on the program. Tom Licciardello Jr. of Koerner Ford, who appears on the program to discuss automotive issues, said his business would “more than likely” continue on the CNY Live!
But one company that paid to be interviewed on the show dropped out. “It was a disaster,” complained Jet Black owner Joel Shapiro. He was enraged that his fashion shop appeared on the front page of the Syracuse Post Standard in a negative light.
“Everyone thought that I was in some way doing something wrong,” Mr. Shapiro said. “People were coming up to me and saying, `Oh, you were trying to get one over on people.”’
Mr. Shapiro has since taken his business to a rival Syracuse station, WSTM-TV, where he is airing a traditional 15-second ad on the station’s local morning program. “I just won’t ever do business with them again,” he said of WTVH, primarily because he said management never apologized to him for the embarrassment his store’s appearance on CNY Live! caused him.
One TV consultant contacted to comment for this story initially said, “Yikes!” when apprised of WTVH’s practice on CNY Live! “We were familiar with a couple examples of this around the noon or 1:30 p.m. time period, but doing that at 5 [p.m.] and running news briefs, it does get close pretty much to a slippery slope,” the consultant said.
However, the consultant later declined to comment further, explaining that some of the firm’s clients might consider asking interview subjects to pay for airtime.
With a soft advertising market and national advertisers wielding tremendous clout, local stations are struggling. Mr. Selwyn positions the creation of CNY Live! as a virtual economic necessity. He also implied that WTVH deserved praise for allowing airtime to local voices instead of opting to air syndicated programming.
“It’s a very legitimate way to restore local broadcasting programming with a local view point,” he said. “I’d much rather be doing this than putting on Jerry Springer and Montel Williams.”
Industry observers confirmed that local TV stations are struggling. “From the economic side of the equation, stations are certainly in a great deal of trouble, especially in smaller markets,” said Joan Van Tassel, author of the book Digital TV Over Broadband: Harvesting Bandwidth. “So it’s not surprising that they are looking for other ways to monetize their airtime.”
But WIXT’s Ms. Underwood believes selling airtime on something resembling a newscast is economically short-sighted. “There’s a lot of pressure on television stations to make money,” she acknowledged, “but when business concerns allow those lines of credibility to be blurred and when selling a new product you damage your credibility, what do you have left?”
CNY Live! has been on the air a short time, and it’s difficult to gauge its success. Overall ratings appear to be holding even, according to Nielsen Media Research figures from February, when the show earned a 5 rating (percentage of TV households) and 11 share (percentage of sets in use) compared with a 5 rating and 12 share for the news show that ran in the time period in February 2002.
Granite owns eight stations. When asked if the company planned to expand the practice of charging for interviews to other stations in th
e stable, Mr. Selwyn replied, “If it works, well, why wouldn’t we?”