Viewers of WWL-TV in New Orleans got some friendly tips about home remodeling last month from Larry Closs, the chief executive of a local renovation company, during a lengthy interview on “Great Day Louisiana,” the station’s weekday morning program.
The segment was part of “Great Day’s” usual mix of softer lifestyle features, personal-health advice, cooking suggestions and interviews with community leaders.
But the segment featuring Closs was not what it seemed. Instead of a traditional interview, in which journalists invite newsmakers to share their stories, the arrangement with Closs went the other way. His company, MaxHome, paid the station an undisclosed fee for the attention, a fact WWL didn’t disclose when the segment aired.
In other words, the “news” was actually an ad dressed up to look something like the news.
With viewers increasingly able to screen out ads with digital video recorders or turning away altogether, TV stations have tried to find new ways to increase revenue. One answer has been magazine-style programs such as “Great Day Louisiana” that seamlessly blend the look of informational and news programming with outright salesmanship, leaving viewers to figure out which is which.
There’s no regulation against weaving ads into such programs, as long as the stations disclose on the air that they were paid or received some other form of compensation from a sponsor. The Federal Communications Commission, which oversees radio and TV stations, requires broadcasters to identify any company that provided “money, services or other valuable consideration” to a station in exchange for mentions.
But the rules, which have been in place since the radio “payola” scandals of the 1950s, are infrequently enforced today. Over the past decade, the FCC has fined only 17 TV and radio stations for failing to identify sponsors, none in the past year. The agency levied its stiffest penalty, $13.4 million, in 2017 against Sinclair Broadcast Group, which the FCC said aired ads disguised as news reports about the Huntsman Cancer Institute, a Salt Lake City clinic, more than 1,400 times. Sinclair is appealing the ruling.
Broadcasters have long aired “infomercials,” program-length ads touting a product or service, and newspaper publishers have produced “advertorials,” featuring articles that read like news stories. “Great Day” — a live program produced in various cities by stations owned by Tegna, a company spun off from Gannett — is a similar kind of hybrid: It mixes paid segments with legitimate features about community projects and personalities. Each segment, paid or otherwise, is moderated by one of the program’s hosts, blurring the distinctions between straightforward editorial content and advertising.
The format is used by other stations’ owners, too. In Denver, rival stations KWGN and KMGH air morning programs called “Colorado’s Best” and “Mile High Living,” respectively, which are much like “Great Day.” In Houston, there’s “Houston Life,” a daily afternoon show on KPRC.
Knowing when the programs are being paid to run an interview or feature can be tricky because the ad content isn’t always labeled as such and sometimes isn’t an ad at all.
KHOU’s “Great Day Houston,” for example, recently aired reports about breast-cancer screening, featuring staff and patients at the Smith Clinic, an outpatient facility that is part of the Harris hospital system. The segments were entirely laudatory, with favorable testimonials from former patients and a long interview with founder Lester Smith. But these weren’t ads; the segments didn’t involve any payments from the clinic to KHOU, according a hospital spokesman.
In other cases, it takes a sharp eye.
A 6½ -minute segment on “Great Day Washington” on WUSA in February featured two local doctors who specialize in treating diabetes. As the doctors described their expertise, the station posted a graphic listing their website and phone number; the doctors and host also plugged an upcoming series of “diabetes reversal seminars.” The tipoff that the entire interview was actually an ad was a graphic at the beginning of the interview that said the doctors’ practice was the “sponsor” of the segment. This notification appeared for 12 seconds.
One of the doctors, Tom Chaney, declined to discuss the financial arrangements involved. He referred a reporter to a public-relations firm, which did not reply to repeated requests for comment.
The segment confused a local viewer, Scott Williams, who said he didn’t notice the brief disclaimer. “I thought to myself, what is this?” he said. “Is it sponsored content? Is it an infomercial? . . . This is the flagship local morning show and it’s disappointing to see because you’re not expecting paid programming.”
Williams frames his reaction this way: “Would this pass muster with [WUSA’s] consumer-affairs reporter?”
The sponsor identification on other “Great Day” promotions can be even briefer than the 12 seconds devoted to disclosing the diabetes doctors’ role. A “Great Day San Antonio” segment titled “The Real Vacation Experience” focused on Moody Gardens, an attraction in Galveston, Tex. Moody Gardens’ sponsorship was mentioned in a graphic that appeared on-screen for three seconds.
Anne Bentley, a spokeswoman for Tegna, WUSA’s parent, said FCC rules don’t require stations to air sponsorship notifications for any particular length of time or at a specific juncture within a program; they’re only required to announce it, orally or visually, in a way that would alert “a reasonable viewer,” she said.
Bentley acknowledged in an interview that WWL’s home-decor segment wasn’t properly labeled and that the video has been removed from the station’s website.
She said “a firewall” separates the news and advertising sides of Tegna’s stations so that sponsors don’t influence the direction of programming.
“We value the public’s trust above all other, and we always aim to be transparent with our viewers,” she said. “When we become aware that we fall short, we fix it immediately.”
As a general practice, station news directors object to “pay for play” segments that don’t make their true nature plain, said Dan Shelley, the executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association, a journalism trade group. Mimicking the look and feel of news or lifestyle reporting, without full disclosure that a source paid to appear, is “deceptive and unacceptable,” he said, especially in light of the declining public trust in journalism.
But in the digital age, the lines can be murkier still.
On WWL’s website, another paid “Great Day Louisiana” segment featuring home-improvement maven Larry Closs appears side-by-side with the station’s news articles and videos. So does the diabetes doctors’ video on WUSA’s website. Neither is marked as “sponsored content” or “advertising,” although other ads on the websites are labeled that way.
Both videos have a lead-in video ad known as a pre-roll — which means the sponsored video that follows is itself sponsored by another ad.