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Pay-for-Play Comes Under Fire

Nov 10, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Under growing criticism from Washington policymakers, WFLA-TV, Media General’s NBC affiliate in Tampa, Fla., last week announced it had beefed up its disclosure policies to ensure that viewers are aware that the station is airing pay-for-play segments on its morning talk show.
The station is under attack because it has been selling four- to six-minute interview segments on its locally produced “Daytime” program for $2,500 a pop, giving advertisers additional time to plug their products and services.
The program’s hosts, who also anchor the show’s unpaid segments, interview the advertisers. In the past the only disclosure had been a brief mention in the credits at the end of the show-a mention that critics alleged many viewers were unlikely to see. Under the new policy announced last week, the paid aspects of the segments will now also be disclosed in a voice-over before they air.
“We listened, we heard and we determined to label the program more clearly so any confusion would be eliminated,” said Lou Anne Nabhan, Media General’s VP of communications.
Also under attack is WLBT-TV, Liberty Corp.’s NBC affiliate in Jackson, Miss., a station that also has been selling slots on a midday talk show. In a bit of a new wrinkle, the WLBT talk show is being hosted by station news personnel. But Dan Modisett, WLBT general manager, said his station’s pay-for-play broadcasts are already clearly labeled. “All of this has gotten so blown out of proportion,” Mr. Modisett said.
In a statement, Eric Land, WFLA president and general manager, said “Daytime’s” paid segments have “generally been obvious by their nature,” featuring personal appearances by advertisers who use the time to promote their products and services. Mr. Land also said “Daytime” has always been separate from the station’s news shows in style, appearance and personnel.
Mr. Modisett said the two WLBT pay-for-play segments that are still being featured on his station-for the YMCA and a local hospital-are more informational than product plugs. “They [the segments] are very popular,” Mr. Modisett said. “They [Jackson viewers] get good, useful information from them.”
FCC Probe Sought
Nonetheless, pay-for-play is clearly rubbing key Washington policymakers the wrong way. In a Nov. 3 letter, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., citing WLBT and WFLA, asked the Federal Communications Commission to investigate whether agency rules that require broadcasters to disclose sponsored programming should be beefed up.
“Please comment on whether you believe congressional action is necessary to ensure broadcasters do not continue to deceive viewers through such `sham’ television programs as `Daytime,”’ the senator said.
In addition, the FCC’s two Democratic commissioners, Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps, endorsed calls for action. “These disguised infomercials are being dubbed as the latest descent into pay-for-play journalism,” Mr. Adelstein said in a speech to the Federal Communications Bar Association, adding that some stations are reported to be airing health segments that include stories sponsored by the hospitals and medical centers featured. “The public deserves to know who is trying to persuade them.”
Added Mr. Copps, in a briefing with reporters, “We need to look at that.”
A spokesman for FCC Chairman Michael Powell said the questions about pay-for-play are relevant to proceedings already being conducted by an agency task force.
WLBT’s Mr. Modisett said his station’s pay-for-play segments have always been limited to certain categories, including health care, exercise and fashion. Even so, he said, WLBT stopped offering the opportunities to new clients several months ago on grounds that the presentations weren’t “worth continuing to pursue.”
The YMCA and local hospital segments are still appearing under the terms of a six-month contract, he said, and the station has yet to decide whether to offer the advertisers renewal.