The Price Point | Paid Segments Erode Trust In Local News

John Oliver exposed an embarrassing practice of using local news personnel to shill products on air. Station groups that participate are playing a dangerous game with viewers’ trust in the process.

Hank Price

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.

Comments (4)

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weluvfakenews says:

May 26, 2021 at 7:07 am

Trust in local news??? That’s laughable!!!! The trust in Local news left years ago as the so-called “journalism Schools” infected these agenda-driven lefties and then watched as they lied and twisted the newscasts to drive an agenda..Give me a break!!

AIMTV says:

May 26, 2021 at 10:36 am

Good article, Hank. Stations are under extreme pressure for revenue. Good GMs and PDs are forced to make decisions that run counter to their instincts. We see it as well on weekend “filler” programming. BTW should any programming time be called “filler”? Restaurants that serve bad meals ANY time of day are assuring themselves a quick road to bankruptcy. So, why should stations showcase bad programming at ANY time of day if they expect viewers to tune back in?

Programs used for “filler” that claim to be “sports” but are mostly scantily dressed girls in hula hoops dancing in a park? Or interviews with non-sports celebs? Other shows, produced by a certain litigious long-time syndicator, that are full of more commercials than content and feature credits that run for 2-3 minutes. These same shows also feature teases or “bumpers” for “we’ll be right back” to fill in time seemingly, and what little content there is looks like is gleaned from EPK (electronic press kits).

Despite the typical fact-challenged “comment” from the predictably bitter troll “Weluvefakenews” on here, research has shown that local news is the last bastion of trust for many consumers, even in these polarizing times (trolls don’t like real names or facts).

Corporate pressure to maximize more and more profits is killing this business we love. I make money with my business, and I could make more, but there are certain lines I won’t cross. Why? Because I respect my viewers, my affiliates, and myself more than that, and sometimes, enough money is enough. Anything more is excess and short-term and damaging to the long-term prospects for my business, but most importantly, my ability to look myself in the mirror by holding to some moral standard. Call me old-school, but I say don’t be ashamed to call it a moral crusade because it just so happens that the right thing to do, is also the best way to ensure long-term financial viability.

Unlike the troll below, I’ll sign my name to this one:
Robert G. Rose
AIM TV Group

Dennis Wharton says:

May 26, 2021 at 12:42 pm

Spot on, Hank. Our critics, personified by the ludicrous first comment below, would love to destroy local broadcasting’s franchise on trust and credibility.

Let’s not give them the ammunition.

tvn-member-1103977 says:

May 26, 2021 at 9:07 pm

A local, Top 40 DMA station powerhouse (all they have to do is flip a switch & automatically win the time slot) used to have their sales manager interview a local business owner for 2-4 minutes, usually in the mornings. He was kinda shady/smarmy looking (LOLOLOLOLOLOL) haven’t seen him recently (retired ?). I assume it continues w/ the current sales manager, but I’m not up that early anymore so I can’t say for sure.

What I hate are the 5-10 minute ‘infomercial’ commercials that come on late @ night. Usually the last program I watch before turning in for the night & just want to get the program over with/ so I can turn in.

At any rate, someone starts droning on for over a minute, the sound automatically goes off or channel changed ASAP.