Local television news is very much in the news today, and things aren’t looking so good. First, the Hollywood Reporter tells us that product placement, which before seemed to be confined to sitcoms and movies, has moved into the newsroom. (In a sense, you can say that the pro-administration video news releases the Bush administration have been feeding local news stations for the past few years are instances of product placement, but from the look of things, no one’s buying many of those policies, anyway.)
Shockingly, the Reporter writes that it’s not that PR agencies are pitching news programmers their wares, but instead it’s the news divisions themselves that are reaching out, in search of some extra lucre. Local news stations are offering “to integrate their clients’ products into news programming in exchange for buying commercial time or paying integration fees.” Aaron Gordon, president of an entertainment marketing firm, told the Reporter that “The line, which has always been black and white in terms of what’s news and what’s commercials, is now being blurred.”
And some local affiliates are going the extra mile to obliterate that line, creating morning “news” programs specifically to hawk their advertisers’ wares. Meredith Broadcasting’s Fox affiliate KPTV in Portland, Ore., for example, debuted “More Good Day Oregon” in January (an extension to its morning news program “Good Day Oregon”) in order to air segments to promote “brand integration.” According to the Reporter, “such other stations as CBS Corp.’s indie KCAL-TV Los Angeles and Gannett’s NBC affiliates in Denver, Minneapolis, Atlanta and Cleveland are experimenting with integration into newsmagazine-type shows that they describe as entertainment rather than news.”
Could the future look like the model that Univision’s KMEX in Southern California has set up? The station has an “integration partnership” with health-care provider Kaiser Permanente Southern California, wherein company doctors are regularly interviewed on Univision’s news programs, while “news footage is shot at Kaiser facilities, and Kaiser patients and support groups are featured in news segments. As part of the arrangement, Kaiser pays additional fees for the integrations, which are not disclosed as such during the news programs.” (Emphasis ours.)
Speaking of corporate-sponsored news, the Baltimore Sun reported yesterday that Sinclair Broadcasting — owner of 62 local stations nationwide — is discontinuing its controversial (and not very popular) “News Central” broadcasts in some markets. The program, which emanates from corporate HQ in Baltimore and is dressed up to look like a local broadcast, is beamed to local markets nationwide with local sports and weather thrown in for a “local feel.”
Sinclair, however, isn’t giving up entirely on dictating the news to its local stations. It will still send “content feeds” to its stations, which just seems to be a cheaper way to do what it’s been doing all along — spoon-feeding its viewers in local markets the news that Sinclair wants them to hear, and only that news.
Part of the Sinclair nightly news program has been a segment called “The Point,” by company spokesman and Vice President Mark Hyman, and we’re curious to know if that is going to be part of the new “content feed.” (CJR Daily’s phone call wasn’t returned by Sinclair HQ.) The one-minute commentary is always a load of laughs, during which Hyman has previously called critics of the Iraq war “whack-jobs,” referred to the French as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” progressives as the “loony left” and members of Congress who have spoken out against administration policies as “unpatriotic politicians who hate our military.” Yes, this is the same company whose owners, less than a month before the 2004 presidential election, announced that they were forcing affiliates to pre-empt prime time broadcasting in order to air an anti-Kerry documentary. Faced with widespread public protest and the first stirrings of a shareholder revolt, Sinclair eventually relented and ran instead a slapped-together piece that included part of the documentary as well as discussions with its critics.
Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.
While we consider the curtailing of the “News Central” broadcasts to be great news, and a body blow to pre-packaged partisan programming controlled by corporate overseers far away from the local markets they purport to serve, we can’t help but think that if only Sinclair had started selling its newscasts to local advertisers some time ago, it wouldn’t have had to close up shop on “News Central.”