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Editorial: Pay-for-Play Should Be Nipped in the Bud

Nov 17, 2003  •  Post A Comment

They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but NBC affiliate WFLA-TV, a Media General station in Tampa, Fla., probably would just as soon do without the attention it has received for its decision to run paid interview segments on its “Daytime” talk show.
The so-called pay-for-play segments, in which advertisers get to plug their wares for four to six minutes for a fee of $2,500, have caught the eye of some powerful lawmakers and regulators in Washington, notably Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. The senator is concerned that the segments, which resemble regular programming, might mislead viewers, and he has asked the Federal Communications Commission to look into strengthening its rules on how far broadcasters must go to disclose sponsored programming.
Another NBC affiliate, Liberty Corp.’s WLBT-TV in Jackson, Miss., takes the practice a step further by having station news personnel host pay-for-play segments on a midday talk show. But the station insists such programming is clearly labeled.
Typically, stations run disclaimers with the credits after shows that contain pay-for-play segments. But we agree with Sen. McCain and others who consider such after-the-fact notices inadequate.
While WFLA and WLBT are among only a handful of stations that have experimented with pay-for-play, their actions appear to be early signals of a developing trend as broadcasters look to find ways to supplement traditional revenue sources in a difficult advertising market. If pay-for-play were to become more widespread, it would be an unfortunate misstep for television.
The lines between programming and advertising, and in particular between news and advertising, represent a covenant between programmers and viewers that until recently has been generally honored. If television is to keep the respect and interest of its audience, that covenant must remain intact.
Sen. McCain is on the right track. Under pressure to produce profits, some broadcasters may not be able to resist the temptation to blur long-established lines of trust. That is why tougher rules must be put in place. As with other issues, we would prefer to see the industry police itself. But mounting evidence suggests it does not have the willingness to do so.
To its credit, WFLA announced earlier this month that it is tightening its disclosure policy to ensure that viewers will know the station is running pay-for-play segments on its morning talk show. Whether its voluntary measures are sufficient remains to be seen.
The problem is still far from widespread. In some cases, the practice has not turned out to be particularly lucrative. But that makes this an especially good time to jump on top of the issue and take steps to control it while it can still be relatively easily controlled.
The FCC would be wise to take this issue seriously and develop clear rules. The National Association of Broadcasters and other industry trade organizations should also take a stand on the problem by crafting and publicizing guidelines.
In general, pay-for-play is a bad idea. However, if stations are going to do it, then at the very least they had better clearly label it. Placing a disclaimer at the end of the program is not enough.
Government and industry leaders should act quickly to ensure that realistic regulations are in place before the situation gets out of hand.