TV Charity Drives: Toys for Tots, Money for Stations

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 21, 2005

When WUSA, Channel 9, began its annual drive this fall to provide toys to underprivileged children, it enlisted the help of SunTrust Bank. The station has told viewers that the financial institution is a "sponsor" of its Toys for Tots campaign, which is promoted extensively in public-service-style TV commercials and during interview segments on its newscasts.

Similarly, WRC (Channel 4) found a partner and sponsor this fall in the D.C. Lottery Commission when the station began encouraging viewers to donate to Project Harvest, an annual drive to provide food to needy families around Thanksgiving.

Both campaigns raise money and other donations for deserving recipients. But in both cases, the efforts raise money for something else, too: the TV stations.

To become "partners" with WUSA and WRC, such entities as SunTrust and the D.C. Lottery pay the stations. The payments buy TV ads that tout the charitable campaigns and the companies' involvement in them. The stations, in turn, often feature their paying sponsors on news reports about the charitable drives, usually without disclosing to viewers that the station is receiving money from the ad buys.

Station representatives have said such "community outreach" drives are a winning proposition for all parties: The charity reaps publicity and public contributions, and the station and its corporate partners gain recognition and goodwill. "We're part of the community and should be active participants in it," said Darryll J. Green, Channel 9's president and general manager.

But critics have said the practice has troubling aspects. Other local stations said they resist turning sponsors into news because that might suggest that the sponsor has paid to influence coverage -- a violation not just of journalistic practice, but potentially of federal rules against payola.

"We're just not comfortable with it," says Duffy Dyer, general manager of WTTG (Channel 5) and WDCA (Channel 20). "We might involve a third party" in a station-run fundraising campaign, "but we don't accept any money ourselves."

As for WJLA (Channel 7), "We have a pretty strict policy . . . that we do not offer newscast time to advertisers," spokeswoman Kathy McGriff said.

A station's alliances with sponsors can take elaborate forms, meshing news, public service and advertising into one undifferentiated whole. Early this year, Channel 9 aired a 16-part series on its "Eyewitness News" offering weight loss and fitness tips. Half the 16 segments in the series, which was called "Lighten Up, Washington," featured interviews with doctors, nurses and other experts from Inova Health System, the Fairfax-based hospital chain. Other segments featured non-medical experts unaffiliated with Inova.

About the time "Lighten Up" aired, Inova bought ads on Channel 9 and its Web site promoting the series and Inova's new Heart and Vascular Institute, whose experts appeared in the program's news segments. And Inova's monthly newsletter promoted the Channel 9 series months in advance.

Inova was simultaneously a station advertiser, a key news source and a sponsoring "partner" of the series. Neither Channel 9 nor Inova spelled out to viewers the various relationships. During one interview segment, anchor Andrea Roane briefly introduced an Inova specialist by saying, without elaboration, that the hospital chain was "a sponsor" of the "Lighten Up" program. At other times, no mention was made of Inova's financial relationship with the station.

Candace Quinn, Inova's marketing director, acknowledged in an interview that the relationships might be somewhat confusing. "I suppose someone watching could say, 'What's going on here?' " she said. But Quinn defended the arrangements, which she said predated her arrival in March at the hospital chain: "There's nothing going on. We're advertising, they're reporting. They gave us a good vehicle to get the word out about our services."

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