Are ads sneaking into the news?


There is no question that the increasing use of ad-skipping technology has brought with it increased reliance on product placement on both scripted and reality entertainment programming. Now a group of professors at the University of Oregon are saying that the practice is becoming part of local news programming. One of them, Jim Upshaw, was formerly a news staffer at the NBC O&O in Washington DC. Upshaw is concerned that the practice is putting an undisclosed slant on the news.

"Stations are not telling their viewers that what they are putting on the air in news or feature stories or in other news content is being done to court a specific advertiser. I think people need to learn to be media literate, informed viewers of television. We may not be able to stop these practices but we need to be aware that these practices do exist."

Upshaw and colleagues monitored 17 network-affiliated stations over a period of time in 2004, watching a total of 294 newscasts. 90% had at least one story which appeared to push a certain product or service, and the overall average was 2.5 such items per newscast at an average of 1 minute 42 seconds per segment. The practice appears to be more prevalent in smaller markets.

"News is the big income generator for television stations," Upshaw said. "Something like 40 percent of a station's advertising sales revenue comes from ads running during newscasts or news-related presentations. Big markets do this too but often in other ways and different time slots."

SmartMedia observation: We assume that the study is not counting the incidental appearance of a business in a news segment, such as an automobile accident which happens to take place in front of a certain fast food restaurant. (That would be news, wouldn't it? "Seven injured as burger joint stages publicity stunt wreck.") We would note that 294 newscasts on 17 stations is a rather small data sample, so before anybody gets up in arms about this, a little peer review would seem to be in order. However, this is exactly the sort of issue that is in FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein's (D) wheelhouse. He's already on the warpath regarding undisclosed product placements, along with the related topics of VNRs, pay-for-say, and undisclosed relationships between product reviewers/experts and the product's manufacturers. Suffice it to say we expect to hear more about this.