The Price Point | Paid Segments Erode Trust In Local News
If you have not seen John Oliver’s expose on the practice of using local newspeople to hawk paid products, then you owe it to yourself to watch. You will see 21 minutes of riveting television featuring news personalities from large market stations pushing all kinds of products, some of which are more than questionable. You will find yourself embarrassed for the talent, the stations and the group owners.
Most embarrassing of all is the pittance it costs to have a news talent expound on the wonderful results one will experience by using (fill in name here).
Sadly, this is not a new practice. During the last of my GM days, I competed against more than one station offering paid endorsements. I knew about it because I constantly had to explain to our salespeople why we were unwilling to do the same thing.
How does it work? The most common way is for a salesperson to offer an advertising client a spot on their “special program” to talk about their business. Technically, the program is not a newscast, which would be fine if news talent were not involved. The problem is that the same people who appear on regular newscasts also host the “special program.”
As Oliver points out, clients are then encouraged to post the “interviews” on their websites.
These arrangements are always connected to the purchase of advertising. Every interview comes with a spot schedule. There is also a direct payment option, which is the subject of Oliver’s piece.
Stations justify this practice by claiming they are not selling commercial endorsements in their “news programs.” This is done with a wink and a nod by the salesperson, since both the client and viewers at home think they are watching part of the news.
Tragically, this is not the worst of it. There are stations that will sell endorsements in their regular newscasts, usually their noon shows or later hours of morning news. No matter what the credits say, viewers have no practical way of knowing they are watching paid material.
Keep in mind that we are talking about medium- and large-market television stations. There have always been some small stations that didn’t hesitate to cross the line between journalism and advertising, but for most of my career it would have been shocking to see this happen at a larger station.
Why, you might ask, are these practices so common? The easy answer is corporate mandates. I have a number of GM friends who don’t like the practice, but the decision is not theirs to make.
If you think I am writing this because of some kind of moral crusade, think again. I believe companies have the right to run their stations however they see fit.
Here is what I do care about, and you should too. Local television is the last form of news media that consumers trust. Survey after survey shows consumers feel betrayed by national media. They don’t trust what they see on networks, on the internet or in print. In some cases, they are angry. Their last bastion of trust is local television news.
We live in a dangerous time for the station business. Networks see streaming as their future. Program suppliers are merging into mega companies offering app-based products. New competitors of every kind are popping up daily.
If local stations are to have a future, it will be based on their one unique strength: strong relationships with local consumers. Stations have those relationships because viewers watch and trust their newscasts.
To willfully damage a station’s only unique asset is a tragedy, because if their viewers ever lose faith, they will leave and never come back. When it comes to consumer loyalty, there are no second chances.
Hank Price is a media consultant and leadership coach. He is the author of Leading Local Television, a guide to leadership for television general managers, as well as those who aspire to top leadership. Price spent 30 years managing TV stations for Hearst, CBS and Gannett, including WBBM Chicago and KARE Minneapolis, as well as three other stations. Earlier, he was a consultant for Frank N. Magid Associates. Price also served as senior director of Northwestern University’s Media Management Center and is currently director of leadership development for the School of Journalism and New Media at Ole Miss. He is the author of two other books.