Arts organizations in Seattle have complained for years about waning TV coverage. So earlier this year, the 5th Avenue Theatre teamed up with KING 5 TV to craft a solution: Arts groups would start paying for coverage by buying segments on a new daytime talk show called New Day Northwest—segments not labeled as commercials.
The 5th Avenue bought a year's worth of weekly appearances on New Day, both to discuss its own productions and to rent the segments to other arts groups. So far, the Seattle Repertory Theatre and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra have paid the 5th Avenue to appear on New Day Northwest. None of the involved parties have disclosed exact payment amounts, but a marketing manager at ACT Theatre said she'd heard an appearance would cost between $3,000 and $6,000. (And a spokesperson for the 5th Avenue says some groups subsidize—but don't pay the full fee—for their appearances.)
Unlike a TV commercial or an advertisement in a newspaper, New Day's bought-and-paid-for segments appear identical to any other segment on the show—but KING 5 and the 5th Avenue insist their financial arrangement is made clear by a brief disclaimer at the end of the program stating that some segments are sponsored. The online versions of sponsored segments do not disclose the financial arrangement.
"We're clearly marking this," says Margaret Larson, a former news reporter for the Today show and Dateline NBC and the current host of New Day Northwest. "Obviously, if I didn't think it was transparent, I wouldn't do it." Private businesses, including Seattle Reproductive Medicine and Selden's Home Furnishings, have also bought segments on the show, which is targeted to women ages 25 to 54.
But even people involved in the pay-for-play arrangement criticize New Day for not being transparent enough. "When people are watching, they don't make that distinction," admitted John Longenbaugh, PR manager for the 5th Avenue Theatre. "They don't necessarily see or know that we're putting money into something that's made to look like a spontaneous bit of journalism."
Katie Jackman, the marketing and communications director of the Seattle Rep, which paid the 5th Avenue for a segment on New Day Northwest, concurred. "I respect the difference between advertising and editorial, and people want to respect that, but that business model just isn't working."
"I could spend a lot of time worrying about 'Is it wrong, is it right?'" David Armstrong, who helped spearhead the deal, said in a telephone interview. "But it is what it is. It's the reality. If people are going to spin through the commercials, the commercials have to be part of the show."
Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute—a national journalism school and ethics resource—says New Day's practice is troubling and its disclaimer isn't good enough. "Viewers pop in and out," she argued. "For something live on the air, it needs to be branded at the beginning and the end, and online it needs to be branded with a visual cue at the top."
Pat Costello, the general manager for KING 5, says New Day doesn't disclose its pay-for-play arrangement at the beginning of the broadcast because "it would slow it down. It sounds apologetic."
"Apologetic?" McBride said. "That sounds like a reason for saying it at the top. It's a question of how you want to be judged—do you want to be judged on the decisions you've made or judged for obfuscating them?"
"Stretching journalism" isn't a new practice. A 2005 article in the trade journal Broadcasting & Cable cites some early examples, including the White House, which spent taxpayer money to produce local TV-news segments advocating policies of the Bush administration. The Government Accountability Office condemned these paid-for "news" segments as "covert propaganda," but the White House instructed agencies to ignore the GAO findings.
"As a former journalist, I'm horrified to be compared with the Bush administration," Larson said. "This isn't a news program—it's an entertainment program." KING 5's general manager also argues melding editorial and advertising content on the talk show does not compromise the integrity of its news programming.
McBride disagrees. "Eventually, that will ruin the newsroom's credibility," she said. "An audience comes to you because they believe you can curate information and help them sort through it. When you turn over even just a portion of your time and space to someone else and you don't make it clear that you've turned it over, you've betrayed a trust."
KING 5 has sponsorship arrangements for some of its news programming, including HealthLink, a recurring health-news segment hosted by Jean Enersen. In 2005, for example, Seattle Children's Hospital began sponsoring HealthLink segments during the evening news and also prime-time HealthLink specials, but says there's no quid pro quo for coverage. "The real benefit is we get a lot of support for our fundraising—their anchors MC our events," said Louise Maxwell, public-relations specialist at Seattle Children's. "And that's a huge benefit to the hospital and the foundation." Maxwell said that Children's would not disclose specific details of business contracts.
Between January 16 and April 17 of 2010, 80 percent of the Children's HealthLink segments about local issues cited doctors at or affiliated with Children's Hospital. (Some Children's HealthLink segments are provided by national syndication services.)
"Not every HealthLink is sponsored," said Ray Heacox, president and general manager of KING. "And if they have sponsors, they're always clearly identified in a commerical break where we have room to put them." According to Heacox, Children's Hospital underwrites HealthLink because "they get public recognition for contributing to stories that contribute to medical well-being."
Swedish Medical Center was approached by KING to sponsor HealthLink segments but turned them down. "We decided not to get involved," said Ed Boyle of Swedish's corporate-communication department. "We were already being approached about editorial content because of our size in the cancer-care market."
Even though they're getting more coverage, not all arts organizations are happy about the pay-for-play arrangement. "Not everyone can afford to pay to play," said Lane Czaplinski, artistic director for On the Boards. "It's dangerous to present a skewed picture of the city's culture."
Other organizations worry they'll be squeezed out of what little free coverage they used to get. Once New Day Northwest got off the ground, KING producers quietly announced that they would stop featuring free arts segments on their morning news program and arts organizations should redirect their pitches to New Day.
"We're redesigning the show," KING news producer Elizabeth Berman wrote in an e-mail to one PR person at a large arts organization. "Sadly, that means that all the feature segments that I had booked are going away... Even worse, I have to cancel all the feature segments that I had already booked, including yours. I will be happy to pass your contact information along to the producers of our new lifestyle show New Day Northwest—but I don't know what kind of availability they have."