Stealth Commercials Still a Pernicious Problem on TV News

By Alex Weprin 

The Washington Post‘s Paul Farhi notes that despite a law outlawing “payola,” many TV news segments at the local and national level feature guests who are paid to plug certain products. Farhi uses the example of child safety expert Alison Rhodes, who has appeared on many local stations as well as NBC’s “Today,” where she plugged a product from home security company ADT–which paid her to promote the item.

NBC and Fox5 say they were unaware of any of Rhodes’s commercial connections at the time of her appearances. Both broadcasters say they strictly disclose all sponsor affiliations to viewers when a guest appears on a news program.

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The issue is that it can be challenging to distinguish between paid promotion and honest service journalism. To be sure, every channel has its share of promotion, often in the name of corporate synergy. The network morning shows routinely feature celebrities who appear on TV programs or movies produced by their parent companies. Even cable news gets into the game, to use just a few recent examples:

CNN promoted the HBO boxing match between Manny Pacquiao and Victor Marquez by re-airing an HBO reality series and having Pacquiao speak to Piers Morgan.

Fox News promoted the MLB World Series (which Fox was broadcasting, naturally) by having some news anchors originate their newscasts from the stadium, and talking to baseball players that ordinarily would probably not be guests on the channel.

NBC seemed to involve every network it owned when the NFL season kicked off in September, making sure that viewers would be bombarded with football no matter which channel they turned to.