Product Placement Comes to TV News

BlogHer Original Post

Once upon a time when there were only three television networks and Americans believed in God, Walter Cronkite and the President (in that order), there was a doctrine in journalism that there had to be an absolute separation between the business and editorial affairs of a news operation. That separation was so serious that it came to be known in some circles as "the wall." It's even been called the "church-state" separation. It was so serious that in the early days of the Today show, I've read that the men who read the news insisted that a non-journalist -- a "girl" -- be hired to do the commercials. In those early days of live television, commercials on the Today show were live shots of someone talking about how great the product was.

That doctrine has been steadily weakening over the years, as news organizations have been taken over by non-news types, competition has increased and profit margins have thinned or vanished. So it's sad, but perhaps not surprising to learn that local television news stations across the country have taken to accepting money to place companies' products on the set. In an article for Advertising Age, the president of one company that accepts product placement for its news broadcasts, Paul Karpowicz said that the practice gave advertisers:

[An] opportunity to have some visibility on their product and not get caught up in a traditional commercial break.

You might be forgiven if you thought that the television news was supposed to be primarily concerned with giving viewers an opportunity to know what was going on in their communities, not catering to advertisers' desire for "visibility," but you'd be wrong. Ads do pay the bills, after all.

Still, part of the value of having a commercial break during a newscast is that keeping the news staff away from the business side helps build credibility with viewers. Even though the news anchors don't mention, use or explicitly endorse the McDonalds' coffee sitting in front of them, the Center for Media Democracy says product placement is still "deceptive." According to CMD's SourceWatch site, television news stations have been seeking these kinds of deals for a few years now. Some of the deals reportedly allow advertisers not only to have their products shown on the set, but to have them actually integrated into the show's content:

[M]ore TV producers are
"adopting a pay-for-play model that could increase the time period's
revenue for a station from between 50% and 100%. Stations -- especially
those owned by Gannett[5] in markets such as Atlanta, Denver, Cleveland, Phoenix, Sacramento and Minneapolis -- are now charging ... $2,500 a pop."

Savvysugar wonders whether readers agree with a marketing professor at Auburn University who says that such practices make viewers "more skeptical of everything." Leslie Wilcox, president of PBS Hawaii calls it a "dismal development". Self-described "ethical marketing expert" Shel Horowitz notes that some of the stations are FOX news affiliates and wonders how "fair and balanced" they can be.

Here's my question: what happens when it comes time to investigate the company whose product is prominently displayed on the set?

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