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Is it News or an Ad?

On March 1, to give one example, Channel 7 aired a report in which Cheryl Jennings brought the new “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” board game to a San Francisco office. She asked an Oakland man who won some money on “Millionaire” to play the board game with his office colleagues. Close-ups showed the game and much merriment. Jennings even had the man read some of the game’s rules.

At the close of her report, anchor Dan Ashley said: “Now you can buy the game on line from ABC for $30.” Co-anchor Jennifer Aguirre added: “And if you want more information on how you can do it, we’ve established a link on our website.”  Up popped the KGO web address showing you how to make the buy. (The image above accompanied the message: "Click here to purchase the "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire board game!")

Just six days before you had to decide which way to vote on dozens of candidates for offices from the president of the United States to local judges, and on scores of ballot measures spending billions of your money, one of Channel 7’s longest stories was really an ad disguised as news.

KGO failed to mention that ABC owns Channel 7 so the story hawked its own product. It also plugged its own quiz show. But there was an even more important reason for running the story, according to former news directors at KGO and KRON--to boost ratings during a “sweeps” month when advertising rates are set. By producing a story about “Millionaire” and promoting it during the “Millionaire” show, KGO hoped to attract extra viewers to its 11 p.m. newscast. Jenning’s story was a triple promotion.

Ads during commercial breaks, raise no ethical questions. But when journalists hide ads in news stories, they violate the Radio-Television News Directors’ Code. They give the credibility of news to an advertisement and undermine public trust.

“You’re almost talking about buying the news! No good news organization would do that! You just don’t do things like that!”

So exclaimed Lawrence Pollock, chairman of ABC-owned television stations, in an interview from his office in Philadelphia. I had asked if Disney (which owns ABC) had a policy of promoting its own goods and services within news stories. When informed that I was talking about one of the stations he oversees, he interrupted: “We don’t do anything like that. This interview is over.”

So I tried Michael Eisner, CEO of Disney. Eisner told Terry Gross, host of “Fresh Air” (a program carried by National Public Radio) in a 1998 interview: “I think it's inappropriate for Disney to be covered by Disney.” Eisner specifically ruled out promotional reporting.Thus I hoped Eisner would explain not only the “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire” plugs, but also why Channel 7 visits Disneyland so often to broadcast live reports.

I particularly wanted to ask about Eisner’s personal interview with Pete Giddings, Channel 7’s weatherman at the time. Giddings reported Bay Area weather live from Disneyland in May of ‘98 just after Tomorrow Land had re-opened. He filed several stories promoting new attractions at the park.

If Eisner was reluctant to have his San Francisco station report on Disneyland, it was lost on Giddings. “The interview with Eisner was all set up,” said Giddings, now weatherman at Reno’s KOLA. “He was scheduled for hours to sit in a chair, and one station after another was given three to seven minutes to go up and ... ask him about Tomorrow Land.”Responding for Eisner, Disney spokesman John Dreyer said, “the news departments [of Disney stations] make their own decisions.” But he said KGO should have disclosed its connection to Disney and ABC. Harry Fuller was news director at KGO before Disney took over. Disneyland, he said, was an infrequent news destination then: “We didn’t go because we weren’t related to Disney in those days.”

Fuller said promoting a local news story on some aspect of a hit network program such as “Millionaire” during the program in order to hold the big audience for the local newscast is standard practice.

“The whole thing is an absolutely cynically-driven effort to get higher ratings during the sweeps so they can charge more for commercials,” Fuller conceded. “That’s all it’s about. It’s a sport of manipulating audiences that’s been around for 15 years. It becomes more pathetic as time goes on, because everybody knows what it is.”

Al Goldstein, former news director at Channel 4 concurred: “Channel 4 sent reporters to L.A. when “L.A. Law” was big. The preponderance of these stories you wouldn’t do otherwise. They’re really not news stories.” 

But selling board games under the pretext of a news story is new, Goldstein added. “That’s taking it way too far.”

Neither Channel 7’s news director Ed Kosowski, nor Cheryl Jennings, nor Dan Ashley responded to our calls for comment. General Manager Joseph Ahern was said to be on vacation.

-John McManus

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