< Morning Show Payola

Transcript

Friday, December 16, 2011

BOB GARFIELD:

Speaking of deception, are you overwhelmed by holiday shopping? Don't worry. You have one more week to watch those morning show segments featuring parades of product experts touting their authoritative lists of the season's hottest gifts. Well, "authoritative" may be a stretch. According to Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi, he recently wrote an article exposing TV news shows as fertile ground for illegal payola, when companies pay reviewers to shill for their products with little or no disclosure to the audience. Paul, welcome back On the Media.

PAUL FARHI:

Thanks very much, Bob.

BOB GARFIELD:

Your story in The Washington Post made me watch this clip. I'd like you to listen to it now.

     [CLIP]:

     SHOW HOST:

Joining us now is Alison Rhodes, founder of Safetymom.com. What do you want to start with here?

ALISON RHODES:

Well, this first thing is the ADT Pulse home monitoring system. If my daughter -

     HOST:

Wow!

ALISON RHODES:

- doesn't come home at 3:15 from school, I get a text saying she didn't walk in the door. I can call the school and see what happened.

HOST:

That's fantastic. All right, this …

BOB GARFIELD:

Golly, Safety Mom sure is [LAUGHS] excited about her ADT alarm system. I guess the folks at ADT were surprised and delighted.

PAUL FARHI:

Yes, I'm sure they're delighted, but surprised, I don't think so. They paid I don't know how much money to Safety Mom for her to talk about the product on those shows.

BOB GARFIELD:

But surely the TV stations explain to their viewers that Safety Mom is being paid by ADT and others to promote these products on air.

PAUL FARHI:

No, they mostly don't disclose this. They occasionally will tell you at the end in credits that someone appeared with promotional consideration by — name of company, but very often that's confusing or buried, and the viewer isn't really gonna know who paid whom for the spokesperson to appear on the air.

BOB GARFIELD:

Local stations have four, five, six different shows that they run every day. It's expensive to fill those shows. So along comes Safety Mom or some middle man with a stable of "Safety Moms" and says, we'll give you X number of minutes of free content, right? That's the business model.

PAUL FARHI:

That's exactly the business model. Everybody gets a little something out of it. The loser in all this is the viewer who believes that they are getting a real expert to give them real recommendations about what's worth buying.

And, of course, that's not the case;  it's basically product placement, just like you see in the movies, but with the imprimatur of the newscast and the anchors. It's not just an ad where the consumer knows to have his or her guard up. It's news, which enables a consumer to say, well, this must be the straight goods. And, of course, it's not straight at all.

BOB GARFIELD:

So the other day, all through the morning, it was just gnawing at me, what are the hottest holiday toys. And [LAUGHS] I — as I do, put on The View.

           [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

And, lo and behold, there was the answer.

[CLIP]:

[AUDIENCE APPLAUSE]

SHERRI SHEPHERD:

We are giving you a big jump on the holiday rush by finding out the hottest holiday toys from toy expert Elizabeth Werner. Elizabeth!

ELIZABETH WERNER:

Hi. So, you know, if we travel our children need to bring so much — a blanket, a pillow and a stuffed animal.

[AUDIENCE OOHS AND AHS]

These are Zoobies.

Now Legos, a huge favorite in every family.

SHERRI SHEPHERD:

Of course.

ELIZABETH WERNER:

… The newest remote control car is actually going to be guided by a laser. The car is going to follow that light, it's gonna go through the loop…

[CHEERS][END CLIP]

BOB GARFIELD:

Now, this is ABC. This is a network program. Is she the real deal or is she a shill?

PAUL FARHI:

It's hard to know. And if I were in the legitimate product reviewing business, I would be screaming bloody murder about all the fake product reviewers out there, because my credibility is now in question.

BOB GARFIELD:

So what are the stakes here? I mean, we're talking about consumer goods. Does it matter if a news organization gives us a little information but not all the information?

PAUL FARHI:

There's a little bit of a slippery slope going on here, which is can you trust the news generally. Cynics would say, of course, you can't, it's all biased. But in this case it's clear that the news is complicit in fooling its viewers. That kind of cynicism can really infect all of the news.

BOB GARFIELD:

If the hot toy segment is for sale, why wouldn't the lead story be, as well? This is not just an unsavory practice. It's a bit of a cottage industry, right? There's brokers set up to be yentas on these bookings.

PAUL FARHI:

Sure. What they will do is hire the spokesperson, get the advertisers who want their products featured, go to the TV stations and say, we have a three-minute holiday gift review that we can offer you. And then they will follow up and tell the client how many viewers actually saw the segment, on how many TV stations. So it's essentially one-stop shopping.

BOB GARFIELD:

All right, so the hot holiday gift items aren't necessarily the hottest, right? Who cares?

PAUL FARHI:

Well, as it turns out, this is illegal. This is not a law that's enforced very often. The FCC relies on viewers to complain. Now, it's very hard for people to complain if they don't know it's illegal, in the first place. Occasionally, one of these things becomes so egregious that someone does complain.

And there are about 20 cases in the last ten or twelve years. The most famous case, I think, was Armstrong Williams, a TV commentator and analyst. He would plug No Child Left Behind and say what a great law it was. Well, it turns out the Department of Education had hired Armstrong Williams to the tune of about 200,000-plus dollars to make these endorsements, in the guise of commentary. Armstrong Williams' company was fined, as were a couple of TV stations that had broadcast these commentaries, which were essentially propaganda.

BOB GARFIELD:

When you spoke to the brokers, what did they tell you? I mean, if payola is unlawful, how did they set up shop even?

PAUL FARHI:

As it turns out, payola isn't illegal. The failure to disclose the payola is what's illegal. And so, their claim is it's the station's responsibility to disclose to its viewers that the segment that these people have set up is, in fact, a payola arrangement.

BOB GARFIELD:

Just one quick follow-up. Any suggestions for just great holiday steals? [LAUGHS]

PAUL FARHI:

[LAUGHS] Check your local listings.

BOB GARFIELD:

Paul, thank you so much.

PAUL FARHI:

Thank you.

BOB GARFIELD:

Paul Farhi writes about the media and a host of other subjects for The Washington Post.