WUSA-TV (Channel 9) charged the D.C. government as much as $100,000 annually to promote breast cancer awareness during the TV station’s newscasts, according to contracts The Washington Times has obtained.
For at least two years, from February 2002 to February 2004, news anchors at the Washington area’s CBS affiliate were required under the contract with the city to encourage viewers to learn more about breast cancer by visiting the station’s Web site. The reminders were designed to drive traffic to a banner ad on the Web site for the D.C. Department of Human Services, the contracts show.
WUSA also used one of its news anchors in commercials paid for by the D.C. government to promote literacy, according to the contracts, which The Times obtained through a Freedom of Information Act.
The announcements appeared to be helpful reminders from the anchors when, in fact, the city government was paying for publicity for one of its agencies without the station telling its viewers.
The deals between WUSA and the government violate two commonly held tenets of broadcast journalism: TV stations should not use their newscasts to advertise products and services, and news anchors should not appear in paid commercials.
WUSA is not alone. Other stations around the nation, including some of WUSA’s competitors in the Washington area, for years have been engaged in deals that journalism ethicists call questionable.
The practice isn’t limited to television. For years, media critics have pointed out unusual alliances between advertisers and newspapers and radio stations.
The broadcast arrangements soon could come under the Federal Communications Commission’s scrutiny.
In August, the FCC announced plans to investigate the “pay-for-play” scandal that forced Sony BMG to pay $10 million to settle payola charges in New York. According to documents the state released after the settlement, Sony executives bribed radio station managers with expensive gifts to entice them to play songs by such performers as Jennifer Lopez and Jessica Simpson.
FCC Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein, a Democrat, has urged the agency to expand the scope of that probe into hidden commercialism in TV news.
“Some will tell you that if broadcasters and cable companies insist on further commercializing news and other shows alike, that is their business. But if they do so without disclosing it to the viewing public, that is payola, and that is the FCC’s business,” Mr. Adelstein said in a speech to the Media Institute, a nonpartisan journalism think tank.
Buddy Check imbroglio
Darryll J. Green, WUSA’s president and general manager, declined to discuss the D.C. government’s role in his station’s long-standing Buddy Check 9 program, which encourages female viewers to remind friends to conduct breast cancer self exams on the ninth day of the month.
In an e-mail, Mr. Green wrote, “I can tell you that the D.C. Department of Human Services is no longer a sponsor of Buddy Check 9. Our Buddy Check 9 reports refer our viewers to our own website wusatv9.com.”
The contracts The Times obtained indicate WUSA charged D.C. government $121,380 from Feb. 6, 2002, to Feb. 5, 2003, and $211,382.25 from Feb. 6, 2003, to Feb. 5, 2004, to become a “co-sponsor” of Buddy Check 9.
In both contracts, $100,000 was earmarked for the cost of “on-air messages,” including “on-air mentions by news anchors within newscasts of the Buddy Check 9 program informing viewers of the WUSA TV-9 website for the Department of Human Services’ banner.”
A spokeswoman for the D.C. Office of Contracting and Procurement, which writes contracts for D.C. agencies, said she was unable to determine how much the city government actually paid Channel 9 during those two years.
An October 2001 letter from Christina D. Eaglin, WUSA’s director of integrated marketing, to a procurement specialist at the D.C. Department of Human Services states the station gave the District a 15 percent discount for its participation in the Buddy Check 9 program.
“[T]he investment you will be making will only be $121,380,” Ms. Eaglin wrote.
In an interview earlier this year, Andrea Roane, who is the station’s chief spokeswoman for Buddy Check 9, said she was unaware of the terms of any deals between WUSA and its advertisers.
“TV stations do an awful lot of good through their community service. What they don’t talk about is how much money they make,” said Scott M. Libin, a professor who specializes in ethics at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a journalism school in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“In many of the worthy causes, there is actual revenue attached, and they don’t tend to talk about that. Where it gets tricky is in the relationship between the TV station, which is a news organization, and the District government, where editorial independence always has to be preserved,” Mr. Libin said.
The Washington Times asked the D.C. government for copies of advertising contracts and other related documents involving the four major TV stations in the Washington area and NewsChannel 8, a regional cable news network, but the search yielded documents between the city and only WUSA.
Blurring the line
TV stations have been making questionable deals with advertisers for many years, although the practice appears to have become more common in the past decade.
A Washington Post investigation in 2003 found the NBC affiliate in Tampa Bay, Fla., charged advertisers $2,500 to be interviewed on “Daytime,” a weekday talk show the station produces.
Gannett Co. Inc., the McLean, Va., media giant that owns WUSA, began selling five-minute appearances for about $2,500 on a talk show on the NBC affiliate it owns in Atlanta.
“We make it very clear after each segment if a segment is paid for,” said WXIA general manager Bob Walker of the talk show that began last month.
An announcer says if a product company paid to appear on the talk show, which is not produced by the news department, Mr. Walker said.
In the D.C. area, George Washington University Hospital has sponsored a regular “High Tech Health” segment on the 10 p.m. newscast WTTG-TV (Channel 5) airs. Managers at the Fox station said the deal has never influenced editorial content.
At WRC-TV (Channel 4), technology reporter I.J. Hudson appeared in 30-second segments in August to promote the NBC station’s annual Digital Edge Expo, which was held Aug. 27 and 28 at the Washington Convention Center.
The segments aired during commercial breaks on the station. In one spot, Mr. Hudson, standing near a bank of TV monitors, tells viewers “there’s something for everyone at the NBC 4 Digital Edge Expo.” Next, an unseen announcer urges viewers to “stop by the Comcast booth and try out America’s No. 1 high-speed Internet service,” then ticks off a list of Comcast services. As the narrator speaks, viewers see images of children typing on a keyboard at a Comcast trade show booth and the words “6 MPBS!” flash on the screen.
WRC declined to comment.
WRC and WJLA-TV (Channel 7) also have devoted time on their newscasts to promote activities sponsored by the stations.
Mr. Hudson delivered as many as six live reports from the floor of the convention center on the day before the Digital Edge Expo, interviewing exhibitors and encouraging viewers to visit the show.
In May, WJLA reported on the Family Caregiver Expo, a two-day event the station co-sponsored with a trade group that represents drug stores.
Managers at WRC and WJLA said their expos are primarily community events, although they acknowledge the events are expected to generate revenue.
“What [WRC and WJLA] are doing is not unusual,” said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a nonpartisan think tank that monitors the news media.
As cable television and the Internet have emerged as new choices for news, ratings for local TV stations have steadily declined, he said. Stations have responded by creating new revenue sources, such as community events and other “partnerships,” he said.
Mr. Hudson’s appearances in the Digital Edge segments could be seen an “implied endorsement” of Comcast from a trusted journalist, Mr. Rosenstiel said.
“There’s a risk where you sort of erode your brand,” he said.
WUSA also has inserted its reporters and anchors into commercials paid for by advertisers.
In 2002, WUSA charged the D.C. government $55,000 to participate from Aug. 1 to Oct. 20 in a “9 Booking for Literacy” walk, according to the contracts The Times obtained.
The contract earmarked $35,750 to air segments featuring Gurvir Dhindsa, then an anchor at the station, promoting the walk.
It also charged the D.C. government $89,675 for its participation in fall 2004, again featuring Ms. Dhindsa in the promos. However, she left the station in July of that year.
Earlier this year, WUSA reporter Peggy Fox appeared in spots to promote “Lighten Up, Washington,” an anti-obesity campaign organized by the TV station and the Inova Heart and Vascular Institute in Fairfax.
The 30-second segments appeared to be public service announcements, but an investigation by The Times revealed Inova had paid for the spots, which featured shots of the hospital and the Inova logo and telephone number.
Columbia Journalism Review, in its August edition, criticized WUSA for airing the segments, calling the hospital’s relationship with WUSA “generally salubrious.”
Viewers should remember that many TV newsrooms are part of major media conglomerates such as Gannett that strive to return value to their shareholders, said Lee Wilkins, a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism.
“The notion that TV stations form these partnerships for the good of the community is an incomplete one,” she said.