Arts organizations in Seattle have been complaining for years that they can't get more coverage on local television. Now they've figured out a way—they're paying for it.

New Day Northwest, a daytime show on KING 5 that moved into Ellen's slot last month, has a regular arts segment, hosted by David Armstrong of the 5th Avenue Theater. Sometimes Armstrong talks about shows at the 5th Avenue, sometimes he plugs other shows, but he never mentions the 5th Avenue bought the segments and rents them out to other theaters.

The practice, while intended to help improve arts coverage in the city (a noble cause), looks (to me) like the payola radio schemes outlawed by Congress in 1960: trying to create a false perception of popularity when the song (or the theater) had to pay for play.

"Objectivity is getting blurry, those lines are already getting blurry," said Katie Jackman, marketing and communications director of the Seattle Rep, which paid the 5th Avenue for a segment on New Day Northwest earlier this month. "This is like jumping off the deep end. I respect the difference between advertising and editorial, and people want to respect that, but that business model just isn’t working."

Case in point: On April 8, Margaret Larson, host of New Day, introduced the arts segment with David Armstrong, saying:

Welcome back: the 5th Avenue Theater’s executive producer and artistic director and my friend David Armstrong is here with news about what’s new on stage in Seattle right now—I love it because you can give us the inside scoop. What should we see?

Armstrong plugged shows at Seattle Children's Theater, Seattle Shakespeare Company, and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra before introducing Jerry Manning, from the Seattle Rep, to discuss its current production of Fences.

At no time did anyone mention that the 5th Avenue had purchased the segment and rented it out to the Seattle Rep for the day—not with words, not with a logo, not with a "sponsored by" note, nothing.

Jackman says the cost to the Rep was comparable to a 30-second commercial on Oprah: around $1,600 to $1,800. (By contrast, she said an ad in the Seattle Times sometimes costs "upwards of eight or ten grand.")

John Longenbaugh, public relations manager at the 5th Avenue Theater, says KING 5 executives approached the theater with the proposal and that David Armstrong was committed to "doing everything he can to bring folks into our theater and theaters around Seattle."

He also added that the amount the 5th Avenue pays for its coverage is not necessarily made up by the subletting arts organizations: "They’re not necessarily paying our full nut. They may help to subsidize it—but there may well be stuff where folks don’t have zip, not a cent, to spend on it and we will still want them on."

Longebaugh said the 5th Avenue thinks of New Day as marketing, not coverage, but admitted that viewers might be confused. "When people are watching, they don’t make that distinction," he said. "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. But there's no confusion about that over here. We’re not trying to hide that."

("Stretching journalism" isn't new—see this 2005 article in a broadcasting trade journal for 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" segements as "covert propaganda," but the White House instructed agencies to ignore the GAO findings.)

KING 5 did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Jessica Massart, communications director for On the Boards, said she'd heard of the pay-for-play idea with KING 5 (via her membership to the Market the Arts Task Force) but hadn't followed up on it.

"It’s not quite up our alley," she said. "We don’t have the budget for it and it isn’t straightforward. If we could be transparent about it, that would be better."