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Shouldn’t TV news outlets be clearer about offering pay-for-play?

One of the most disturbing trends in local TV news is the persistence of “pay for play”—when local TV newscasts allow sponsors to dictate content.

The Federal Communications Commission has proposed a rule that would make it easier for the public to see which stations are engaging in these and other deceptive or ethically dubious practices. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), which represents local TV stations, has responded that this would be burdensome to local TV stations and would “provide no clear new benefit to the public.” They note that the new rule was based on the FCC’s Information Needs of Communities study, which was “strictly anecdotal, providing little to no evidence that ‘pay for play’ sponsorships in news, where advertisers are allow to dictate news scripts, are a systematic problem.”

I was the lead author of that report, so I naturally think the evidence was vast and persuasive. A few examples:

• One study found that in a ten-month period, seventy-seven stations ran ninety-eight instances of thirty-six video news releases without disclosing that they were press releases. (A video news release may include an actor pretending to be a TV reporter describing the benefits of a particular product or service.)

• Stations around the country ran a piece ostensibly by a TV reporter about a rehabilitation system for kids without disclosing that the reporter was actually a former reporter who now worked at the hospital pitching the service.

• A news director in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, resigned when told that a local hospital would “pay the station to air two health stories twice a week on topics selected from a list provided by the hospital. The only people the reporters could interview for those stories were personnel at that hospital.”

• One station wanted to create a ninety-minute show with thirty minutes of news produced by the news department, followed by a sixty-minute “value-added show,” shaped by advertisers, and hard to distinguish from the news show.

• A station in Florida, according to The Washington Post, attempted to charge guests $2,500 to be interviewed.

Other cases in point are provided on pages ninety-one to ninety-six of the report.

Paul Farhi of The Washington Post recently offered more examples in a piece titled, “Despite law against it, stealth commercials frequently masquerade as TV news.”

In September, James Rainey of the Los Angeles Times described still another batch of cases and declared, “The trend promises to continue and grow.”

What is the FCC proposing to do about this? Perhaps surprisingly, it’s not proposing to ban or even restrict such practices—it’s simply advocating greater transparency.

There is a policy already in place known as “sponsorship identification,” which stems from the 1950s payola cases in which it was revealed that radio disc jockeys were being paid to play certain songs. Over time, this developed into a broad principle for broadcasters that, according to the Communications Act, “listeners are entitled to know by whom they are being persuaded.”

So, TV stations are currently required to post, on air, information about which sponsors are behind portions of their newscasts. The FCC now proposes that the information already required to be disclosed on air should also be put online, in a searchable format. This would greatly increase the effectiveness of transparency, because the current on-air mentions are fleeting. As a coalition of public interest groups wrote, “most TV broadcasters relegate sponsorship identification disclosures to a minuscule, fast-moving scroll at the end of the program credits….”

The NAB argues that putting this material online would not have any benefit: “It strains credibility to suggest that many, if any, interested members of the public will, rather than simply read a list of sponsors at the end of a program they are already watching, choose instead to reach deep into a large government database to find that information.”

This contention reflects a lack of awareness of how information flows on the Internet. It’s not that every citizen would now spend their hours on the FCC website. It’s that journalists, citizen groups, and competitors would use the government data to create consumer-friendly information sources and reports. Local newspaper reporters would write about the stations in their area. National best-and-worst lists would follow. Apps would be born. The news about which stations engage in these practices would spread.

That may be exactly what broadcasters fear. Seeping through the comments submitted to the FCC from industry representatives is the sense that they prefer the current system in which the “public inspection file” is not actually inspected by the public. For instance, four TV licensees (in San Diego, Texas, New Mexico, and Illinois) objected to a proposal that the public be notified on-air about the existence of the public inspection file: “Such announcements may arouse the public’s interest in examining a PIF, but the Licensees do not believe that the Commission should attempt to stimulate such examinations.” Right. We wouldn’t want the public actually paying attention because that would, in the stations’ words, result in their playing “Sherlock Holmes” rather than engaging station managers in “productive dialogue.”

These licensees note that in “the ensuing forty-five years, the public has generally made little use of the PIF files for either dialogue or confrontational purposes.” But amazingly, they offer this as evidence that the system works fine and should not be changed.

Now, it may be there are ways in which the proposed rules could be improved or sharpened. And broadcasters are absolutely right when they say that for such a system to work, the FCC itself will have to up its game technologically.

It’s worth reminding ourselves of something basic: that the organizations arguing against better disclosure represent local news operations—yes, the same news organizations that routinely (and appropriately) demand greater transparency from public officials. Can these local TV news organizations really be so tone-deaf as to demand greater transparency from everyone else but resist even the most rudimentary, common-sense forms of transparency for themselves?

January 17 is the newly extended deadline to respond to the rule and the first wave of comment that have been submitted. Whether you agree with my take or not, I’d urge you to weigh in. To read the comments offered so far, go here and put it in proceeding number 00-168. To post your own comment, click on the “submit a filing” link on the side or click here. To read the FCC’s proposal in full, go here.

This is one of two articles about new FCC rules on media transparency; here’s the other.

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Steven Waldman is founder of, co-founder of Beliefnet, and a former newsmagazine journalist. Tags: , , ,