Sponsored Content On TV

A reader elaborates on a recent “Sponsored Content Watch” (a depressingly ongoing feature on the Dish):

What your reader is describing is called a video news release, or VNR. It’s a publicity tactic – basically an advertisement made to look like a news report. In a way, they serve a purpose, as news agencies (especially smaller local stations with limited budgets) can use pieces of them to supplement ongoing reports, the same way newspapers will use information from a press release. The problem with them comes when they’re just aired whole without attribution, as if they’re regular news. Your reader’s note that the segments discussed ended with a “sponsored by” notice is actually an improvement; until about a decade ago, many VNRs aired without any notice at all, such as being produced by a pharmaceutical company or government agency. In 2005, the FCC started cracking down on the practice and said stations could be fined for airing VNRs without attribution, so news programs are a little more cautious about it nowadays (not to say the practice has gone away entirely).

Another points to a more disappointing offender:

Regarding the growth of sponsored content on TV, last month PandoDaily broke the huge story that PBS received $3.5 million from anti-pensions billionaire John Arnold to fund a scare series called “Pension Peril”.

The point of the series – that public pensions are underfunded and therefore benefits should be slashed – is a baldly partisan argument that happens to coincide perfectly with one of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation’s main lobbying goals. Arnold also personally helped finance a California initiative to roll back public employee pensions. The irony is Arnold made his fortunes as an energy trader at Enron, the company notorious for manipulating the energy markets of – you guessed it – California.

PBS stonewalled the journalists, refusing to show a copy of their agreement with the Arnold Foundation, but once the shit hit the media fan, they backed down and returned Arnold’s funding, and now the series is “on hiatus,” according to the NYT. The whole thing brazenly violated PBS’s own rules that forbid accepting funding from a source whose interests align with a project, and not just for partisan issues: even for something as benign as advocating cancer research, which they give as an example in their own rules: “Similarly, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to eradicate heart disease or to raise money for leukemia research could not fund a program designed to educate the public about these respective illnesses.”

The icing on the cake was that PBS never disclosed the funding source on TV, and the evidence for the connection was virtually non-existent online. Perhaps they hoped to keep it quiet, because according to PandoDaily, a source at a meeting with PBS execs said, “I asked who was funding that project, and the executive said that at this point they are not disclosing who their funders are, and everybody sitting around the room kind of paused.” If PandoDaily hadn’t dug up the dirt and published it, no one might have ever known. Whoever set this thing up at PBS needs to be shown the door, and soon.