Much Ado About License Fees

By Alex Weprin 

In Poynter today, Julie Moos explores why TV news outlets pay license fees to interview subjects and sources. She also proposes solutions to “return the genie to the bottle.”

License fees are a fairly common part of the TV news landscape, particularly among the network morning shows, where personal interest stories are often king. Just in the past few weeks, NBC paid a fee for photos from a high school senior who faked a pregnancy, and ABC paid between $10-15K for photos from one of the women Rep. Anthony Weiner texted with.

Moos cites the visual nature of television and the rise of cable news as reasons why licensing fees have become more popular. Budgets and the relative “value” of photos and videos also play a role, she argues.

As for her proposed solutions:

So, here’s a start. Pay “license fees” only to information providers who are not involved in the story documented by their material. Freelance journalists would fall into that category, as would any observer or witness, like Janis Krums, who tweeted a photo of the Hudson River plane landing.

In the rare instance when you do pay a source for material, “show me the receipt,” as my colleague Jill Geisler puts it. Tell readers exactly what you paid, for what items and why, including indirect costs such as travel, hotel and meals. If use of the material is exclusive, say that.

In other words, be open about it, rather than try to obfuscate as most networks do.

Of course, there are other ways to secure exclusives. ABC News recently secured an exclusive with Jaycee Dugard, who is looking to promote her upcoming book which details her harrowing experience. Dugard was actively pursued by bookers for a number of networks, as we reported in March. A spokesperson for ABC News said the network did not license any new material as part of the interview deal.

A more likely scenario is that ABC’s pitch included a presence on multiple platforms, “Good Morning America,” “World News, “Nightline” and perhaps even a primetime special. For someone trying to sell a book, that sort of promotion could not be bought.

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