Anchors, sportscasters hawking products

Los Angeles’ news viewers aren’t easily shocked — this is the town, after all, that once offered the minidoc “Lesbian Nuns” as a sweeps come-on. Nevertheless, a few blanched recently when KCBS-TV’s Vera Jimenez segued from the San Diego Freeway’s congested morning traffic directly into a spiel for the Lincoln Navigator — complete with video of her behind the wheel.

KCBS backpedaled, saying the “experiment” wouldn’t be repeated. Still, the CBS O&O is forging ahead with tie-ins like the one where the marketing manager for a local pizza chain made a delivery to sports anchor Jim Hill during his highlight show, awkwardly bantering about, you know, how terrific their pizza is. And Fox’s NFL pregame showcase called a similar play, as analysts Michael Strahan and Terry Bradshaw took a break from X’s and O’s to demonstrate the leg room and capacity of a Ford truck.

Granted, who expects journalistic standards or advertising-editorial distinctions from local TV and wacky sports guys? Yet as digital-video recorders like TiVo threaten the ad-supported TV model, those areas pave the way toward seemingly inevitable scenarios where talent doubles as pitchman — product-placement injected with zap-proof steroids.

Years ago I posited that the logical end point would be for esteemed anchors like Jennings and Brokaw to intro the news, then pause to say, “But first, a word about Tylenol.” If that sounded far-fetched, remember that radio personalities like Paul Harvey and Charles Osgood were already ankle deep in this game, just as Sean Hannity goes from skewering liberals to relating the merits of Regenix, a hair-restoration product. Throughout radio, hosts and reporters now seamlessly shift from political diatribes or weather updates to plugging mortgage lenders and nutritional supplements.

In a troubled economy, the cracks in TV’s wall could rapidly expand into fissures — especially since DVR penetration is reaching levels that have begun to radically alter the playing field, forcing marketers to get creative and networks to identify guidelines they can dismiss as old-world.

Lara Spencer, host of the syndicated “The Insider,” is already peddling packaged goods in a tie-in with CBS’ Monday comedy lineup. How long can it be before a pragmatist like NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker dispenses with concerns about eroding Matt Lauer’s journalistic integrity by having him channel his inner Ed McMahon? And wouldn’t CNN’s Lou Dobbs be a natural fit for fence-building materials?

The lingering impediment is that nobody knows precisely where the audience’s “ick” factor kicks in, but most evidence suggests that they’re pretty understanding. According to research from Knowledge Networks, a small percentage of viewers object to product integration, a few actually enjoy it, and the lion’s share don’t care. So while purists might wince, there’s little reason to believe a few derisive postings on Jim Romenesko’s media-news website will trigger a significant ratings backlash.

Broadcast historians also will note that this discussion possesses a “back to the future” quality, inasmuch as news talent segued to a sales role in TV’s infancy. Even CBS’ legendary Edward R. Murrow appeared in coffee ads that enthused, “There’s a welcome lift in every cup.”

Today, cable stalwarts like Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and Rachel Maddow already read ad copy on their radio shows — and have helped blur boundaries between opinion and news. Poynter Institute dean Keith Woods told Editor & Publisher that watching CNN, he’s given up trying “to determine who is a pundit and who is a journalist.” As for more traditional newsmen, after seeing Wolf Blitzer talk to holograms, honestly, how much credibility is there left to lose?

Even my personal antipathy toward the idea has softened — worn down amid the daily dose of dismal earnings statements in a “desperate times call for desperate measures” kind of way. Major outlets can’t do a lot more cost-cutting and still profess to cover the news, which makes unlocking new revenue streams all but mandatory.

As for news personnel who find the prospect of shilling for products unsavory, just hold your nose and think about the jobs this might save. Who knows, maybe there’s a way to develop a product-integration deal around your discomfort — for air fresheners, perhaps, or those Breathe Right nasal strips.

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