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Tuned In: KDKA quiz blurs line between news, ads

Thursday, March 16, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

In the early days of TV newscasts there was little divide between news and advertising. Just look at NBC's "Camel News Caravan," a nightly newscast anchored by John Cameron Swayze with the name of sponsor Camel cigarettes in the show's title.

But as more journalists made the jump from print to TV, blatant commercialism was pushed back and a line was drawn between the news department and advertising.

Now that line is again on the move, heading back toward the "Camel News Caravan" model. All media -- this newspaper included -- are looking for new revenue sources to ensure their survival. As they do, the separation between news and advertising is less rigid than it once was.

On local TV, perhaps the most glaring example is KDKA's deal with Dick's Sporting Goods, which forces sports anchors to mention Dick's while reading a trivia question every night during the newscast.

KDKA news director Jeff Weissbart defended it as a "fun little trivia game."

"The sports guys, unlike our anchors or news reporters, are not out there covering the hard news stories of the day," Weissbart said. "If there ever was a story involving Dick's, one of the [news] anchors or reporters would cover it. In no way are we going to jeopardize our news standards or journalistic standards."

That doesn't make the grade with Hubert Brown, a TV news producer who teaches ethics at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.

"It's completely compartmentalized thinking," Brown said. "It's a difference that makes no difference. If you're a person out there presenting news or sports information on the air, there ought to be some sort of barrier between you and the person who is doing the commercial."

Brown said he wouldn't have a problem with a nightly sports trivia question in the newscast if it were distinct from the commercial sponsor. Rather than having an anchor read the question, Brown suggests running the trivia question on either side of the sportscast -- coming out of or going to commercial -- with an announcer reading the question rather than an anchor.

"That would be fine," he said. "Having sports folks do it is turning them into people who are hawking products. It's not their job, or at least it shouldn't be their job."

Weissbart said KDKA stands by the arrangement.

"The No. 1 thing we look at is will our journalism and integrity be in any way compromised?" Weissbart said. "We will not compromise our standards."

Brown said the commercialization of TV news has become a nationwide trend.

"There has been a general move toward more involvement in this kind of way with advertisers and it's very, very troubling," Brown said. "Can the viewer depend on that news organization to very impartially go out there on behalf of the viewer, not the advertiser, to find the truth?"

Brown said it's all about bringing in advertising dollars.

"We've got a lot of places where money is apparently somewhat tight," he said. News directors, general managers and general sales managers at TV stations are looking for more ways to make money. "This allows them to hawk one more name. People in newsrooms are talking about it."

WPXI general manager John Howell said his station will not do sponsorships in its newscasts. WTAE general manager Jim Hef-ner echoed his comments.

"We don't do it and we have no plans to do it," Hefner said. "I don't believe it's the right thing to do."

Howell and Hefner both worked as news directors in the past, and Howell said what's considered sacrosanct about TV news continues to change within the industry.

"When I was a young news director we had a bell over the assignment desk and whenever a salesman entered the newsroom, we rang the bell as a joke to alert people," he said. "Our perception as news guys was that they were always there to get us to cover a grand opening."

Now he jokingly refers to the newsroom as the Revenue Prevention Department.

Where once a news division could easily ignore the entreaties of the sales department, Brown said the complaints of journalists are being drowned out by opportunities for profit.

"Other voices are holding sway a little bit more," he said. "News products are extremely competitive right now and they have to find a way to keep the revenue stream going and this is a way to do that."

Less disconcerting, more subtle sponsor influences can be found in quasi-public service announcements. Not long ago PSAs were just that: Announcements provided by TV stations to benefit the public with no paid sponsorship. As TV stations seek more income sources, even PSAs are up for grabs. A few years ago NBC's "The More You Know" spots switched from pure PSAs to sponsored PSAs.

On KDKA Don Cannon talks about his troubles with alcohol abuse in a spot paid for by the St. Francis Institute.

"KDKA came to us asking if we would be interested in buying some time, and that's what we've done," said Shirley Freyer, vice president of public affairs for the St. Francis Health System.

KDKA's Weissbart said he has no problem with Cannon's involvement in the paid ad.

"We think it's a valuable thing to get across to the community," he said. "The station gets oodles of requests for PSAs from nonprofits all over town. When there are sponsorships, the message can get more air time than if it was in a public service rotation."

Many stations allow their personalities to appear in or do voiceovers for sponsored PSAs. Last month KDKA's Lynn Hayes-Freeland touted a "Mortgages for Mothers" workshop put on by Dollar Bank, which also sponsors KDKA newscasts. WTAE ran Arts Pittsburgh segments -- voiced by Sally Wiggin -- outside the newscast after the group bought ads on the station.

"The way we justified that was we thought it was for the greater good," Hefner said. "How could it be bad to talk about the arts and encourage participation in the arts?"

WPXI's Howell said PSAs are a murky area. He doesn't want his anchors involved in anything that feels like a commercial or forces them to say the name of a PSA sponsor. But he concedes it's a public service to have an anchor talk about the benefits of, say, mammograms, even if it involves a specific hospital.

Whatever the future of PSAs, Howell is convinced viewers will see more commercialism in newscasts as the medium continues to mature and stations look for new ways to make money.

"I see it all the time when I go to other markets. They don't quite have the anchorman wearing the commercial logo lapel pin, but you see more and more of this kind of thing," he said. "That's not anything that can be stopped."


Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.



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