In 2007, the agency proposed fines of $76,000 against conservative commentator Armstrong Williams and two TV-station owners for failing to disclose that Williams was paid $240,000 by the Department of Education to talk up the No Child Left Behind law in TV appearances broadcast by the stations.
The extent of TV news payola is unknown, although groups such as Free Press and the Center for Media and Democracy say it is widespread. Stations rely on interviews with product-touting “experts” as a cheap source of programming, says Corie Wright, an attorney for Free Press.
But Wright calls such segments a consumer deception because they masquerade as something they’re not. Viewers expect “objective information from news programs, and that’s not the case” in these instances, she said. “The public has no idea they’re being pitched a commercial.”
Media companies that specialize in connecting product sellers to TV news operations form a small sub-industry. These middle men line up the products to be pitched and hire a host — often a camera-friendly actor or a professional in a field — to describe the goods on the air.
The middle men then contact stations, offering two- or three-minute interviews with the host, who has been coached to highlight certain features of each product. Some companies even offer to write the opening question for the station’s anchorperson. The companies will also supply so-called b-roll — background footage — that a station can incorporate into the conversation.
In a cooperative or “co-op” arrangement, the middle man arranges for the host/expert to discuss three or four products at a time, with each company paying a fee for inclusion. The fee depends on several factors — how many stations air the interviews, the size of the cumulative audience — but payments typically range from $8,000 to $12,000 per product.
The interviews are pegged to almost every holiday or occasion, with such themes as “Winning Super Bowl Recipes,” “Summer Travel Tips,” and “Spring Car Care.” Miller/Weiner Communications, a New Jersey-based production company, offers seven such themed “tours” for the year-end holidays alone. It brags on its Web site that its “Family Holiday Gift Tour” will be seen on “17 top local shows”, while its “Holiday Guys’ Gifts and Gadgets Tour” will be seen on 16 more around the country.
Stations like to air these interviews “because they need to provide content to their audience,” says Rob Long, president of Circle F Media, an Austin-based company that specializes in promoting high-tech gadgets. “We bring them expertise and material. It’s 2 1
2 minutes that they don’t have to [produce] themselves.”
The product makers like the exposure, Long says, especially since a newscast offers greater credibility than would a straightforward commercial.
Long’s company is careful to disclose the sponsored nature of the interview to each station. But disclosure to viewers is up to the stations.
Rhodes, the “Safety Mom,” says she always discloses her sponsors if a station asks. Both Fox5 and NBC said they believed she had no connection to any companies she mentioned on the air. “It’s [station] policy to ask guests if they are paid by a third party and if they say they are, we disclose it on air,” said Claudia Russo, a Fox5 spokesperson.
Yet Rhodes lists ADT Security Systems — one of the companies she touted — as a client on her Web site. And ADT, in turn, has touted its association with Rhodes in press releases, seminars and Web ads for the past two years.
Rhodes’s on-air endorsements get an endorsement from at least one of the companies she mentioned on the air. Inventive Concepts International, the maker of iSafe backpacks, says it got a big boost from Rhodes’s TV appearances, said Tenaya Bookout, a spokeswoman. “It has really opened the doors for iSafe,” she said.