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Madison Avenue Pushes to Blur Lines Between TV Anchors, TV Ads

TV News Sponsored Advertising
Illustration: Variety; Cronkite: Glasshouse Images/Shutterstock

Lisa Ling’s series “This Is Life,” has run on CNN since 2014. Now she has another newsy program – one that would be hard pressed to find a slot on the programming schedule of the cable-news outlet.

Ling is the host of “The Road to a Vaccine,” an eight-part video series backed by pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson. Holding forth from her own living room in Santa Monica, California, Ling guides viewers through conversations with experts from around the world, including some of the company’s own scientists and experts in vaccine research. The series surfaces on social media and in ads on traditional media venues as the world grapples with the severe effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

In the sixth episode, Ling talks to the head of public affairs at UPS to learn about the logistics of distributing a vaccine, and a youth advocate trying to talk to people about the coronavirus pandemic in remote areas of Nigeria. But she also carries a message from the company that created the show: “Johnson & Johnson’s goal is to develop a vaccine with the aim of manufacturing one billion doses, which is as big a commitment as we’ve heard in terms of scale,” she says.

More Madison Avenue heavyweights are looking to TV journalists and TV-news outlets to help them land a punch. General Motors and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles are among the blue-chip advertisers that have recently struck deals to sponsor news programming and align themselves with news personalities – a practice that in a different era might have drawn more scrutiny.

“I’m a fierce traditionalist and do not think true newsies should be in any way endorsing any product,’ says Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington Bureau chief who is director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. “Who knows…they may actually have to report on that product or the world in which it sells its wares at some point.”

Earlier this year on “Good Morning America,” Lionsgate’s Starz cable network was able to get meteorologist Ginger Zee to take a trip to Scotland, where the outlet’s “Outlander” program is filmed. Viewers of the ABC morning program were informed via on-screen graphics and in the segment’s narration that the piece was sponsored by Starz. Late last year, Fiat Chrysler was able to work with Fox News Channel’s “Fox & Friends” morning program to create vignettes in which hosts Steve Doocy, Ainsley Earhardt and Brian Kilmeade are shown driving to see friends and family in a Dodge Durango SRT.

To be sure, none of the news hosts explicitly tells viewers to go out and buy the product or service. And there’s a big chunk of morning-show viewership that has seen similar stuff for years in TV’s A.M. news slot, where Toyota sponsors the “green room” at “CBS This Morning” and Citigroup backs summer concerts at NBC’s’ “Today.” Advertisers have always worked up ways to align themselves with the news:  in the 1950s, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco and Chrysler Corp. were regular sponsors of NBC News’ “News Caravan,” a precursor to today’s evening-news broadcasts. The news reader on that program, John Cameron Swayze, would go on to do voice-overs in commercials for Timex watches.

But some of the recent executions have raised eyebrows – even among TV executives  -and suggest just how quickly the field may change as media outlets work harder to bring new ad dollars to news programming. With consumers watching  some of their favorite scripted dramas and comedies via streaming-video hubs, news content is capturing more of the large, live audiences advertisers covet. Indeed, the broadcast-news divisions are breaking more frequently into daytime and primetime schedules with coverage of breaking-news spectacles, and cable-news outlets are crafting a new array of town halls and special events.

As they do, some news operations are moving closer to helping to sell products.  Both NBC News and ABC News have launched e-commerce efforts, where they spur sales of the items their anchors and correspondents recommend in various segments. The companies may earn a commission when a consumer uses one of their links to buy an item they saw discussed on TV or in a web video.

Madison Avenue’s interest in news anchors comes despite growing concerns about so-called “deepfakes” and the spread of unreliable information. Simply put, TV journalists have been elevated in the nation’s cultural cycle. News personalities have always enjoyed fame and recognition, but those things have increased since the 2016 presidential election and soared anew during the current pandemic. Evening-news programs long grappled with audience erosion, but with people staying home to avoid coronavirus transmission, ABC’s “World News Tonight” has become one of the nation’s most viewed linear programs, and CBS has begun to bill Norah O’Donnell, the anchor of its “CBS Evening News,” as “the most watched woman in TV news in America.”

With that, news anchors command new attention. CNN’s Jake Tapper has in recent years has become a regular on the late-night TV circuit and ventured into writing fiction. CBS News and NBC News seem to take delight in promoting the cross-network marriage of MSNBC anchor Katy Tur and “CBS This Morning” co-host Tony Dokoupil. Fox News primetime host Sean Hannity will in August release his first new book in a decade. MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski oversees a series of “Know Your Value” events and forums in which NBCUniversal News Group is a partner. CNN’s Anderson Cooper sparked a news cycle two weeks ago by taking to one of that outlet’s Thursday-night pandemic town halls and announcing he had a new son, Wyatt.

One executive producer at a network morning show says advertisers have ramped up their efforts to tie themselves to the program in recent years. It is all part of larger efforts by Madison Avenue to find ways to weave products and pitches into content as more traditional TV viewers find new ways to skip past ads – or simply ignore them. This producer says news executives often determine whether such advertiser requests are suitable or not. The product and the pitch cannot offend viewers, can’t pose any sort of harm, can’t be off putting, and can’t undermine the standards of the show, this person says. But the ad integrations offer a new stream of revenue for the program, this producer says, and executives work to keep anchors who deal regularly with hard news away from segments that involve a heavier sponsor influence.

Advertisers crave the tie to real-time events and topics that newscasters bring. “Part of why we engaged Lisa is for her in-depth reporting style that sheds light on a wide variety of topics for her audiences. Lisa has the flexibility and license to pursue her curiosity – and that of those watching – for each episode,” says Michael Sneed, Johnson & Johnson’s chief communication officer and executive vice president of global corporate affairs, in emailed responses to questions. “While I can’t say what would work for another brand, that authenticity and credibility was important to us at Johnson & Johnson.”

News divisions are likely to have to rethink some of the rules surrounding use of their anchors and correspondents. Who needs to remain separated in all instances from ad efforts and who might take part? Indeed, this calculus is already taking place at some networks, according to three people with knowledge of discussions between ad-sales departments and news executives. ABC News might make Ginger Zee available for advertiser-sponsored segments for example, but not George Stephanopoulos, who also hosts the Sunday public-affairs program “This Week” and many special breaking-news reports.

Further debates could sprout: Can an employee who contributes to news content but who also takes part in non-news ventures – like Michael Strahan or Carson Daly – get involved in such stuff? What about personnel who host serious news hours but lighter fare as well? News divisions seem ready to keep the anchors who deliver straight news at moments of urgency – people like Lester Holt, Savannah Guthrie, or David Muir – away from the advertiser ventures. And they must give new consideration to personnel who may be in line for top anchor spots down the line, so as not to undermine news credentials.

In the case of Johnson & Johnson’s alliance with Lisa Ling,  Sneed says the company declines to comment on “the specific terms of her contract.” CNN declined to make executives available to discuss the matter, but since Ling is not a full-time employee of the network, says one person familiar with the matter, the news outlet may have limited ability to direct her outside activities. At Fox News Channel, “Fox & Friends” personalities are considered opinion hosts, not news anchors.  The network will not create such sponsorships around segments devoted to hard news, said Jeff Collins, executive vice president of ad sales at Fox News Channel in an interview last year: “We have very strong standards-and-practices guidelines.”

One factor behind all this activity: News programming is taking on more importance at media companies, but sponsors have long been queasy at the prospect of getting too close to tough headlines and polarizing issues. TV networks have for years monitored news programs to make sure certain sponsors’ commercials are not positioned next to scenes of disasters or violence. In the digital era, the networks have even had to contend with sponsors asking to have their pitches blocked from showing up on desktop and mobile pages with news about broad topics, such as the coronavirus pandemic or President Trump.

To keep the dollars coming in, the TV networks have tried to build pieces and segments buffered from the hard stuff. At Fox News Channel, executives have been deploying a new range of “uplifting” segments under the “America Together” rubric that examine heroic acts or lifestyle topics that draw broad interest. “Now, the most in-demand content that we have in really uplifting content,” says Collins, in an interview last month.  “That content is the type of content we are seeing advertisers gravitate toward.”

NBC News recently launched a content effort that looks to buffer the stories it produces from advertiser influence while finding a perch for potential support. NBC News Custom Productions, unveiled in March, is an editorial unit devoted to developing content for streaming-video outlets that might be paired with ad support.

Other news outlets have begun to offer services that help advertisers create so-called “branded content,” or vignettes and articles that emulate news programming. Fox News has partnered with a branded-content studio called Heve and CNN introduced an in-house unit called Courageous. Both strive to create content for advertisers that play off their news settings. Chris Berend, executive vice president of digital for NBC News, says while the NBC News division develops features marketers might want to sponsor, it is not developing ad messages.

“We are in the business of editorial and storytelling, and we adhere to all the standards and guidelines that we normally associate with that – including what talent should do and probably should not do,” he says in an interview.

General Motors’ Cadillac has sponsored “Mavericks,” a video series of MSNBC anchor Ari Melber interviewing musicians, artists, actors and influencers ranging from Swizz Beats to Annie Lenox. “We know our consumers are incredibly in touch with current events and what is going on in the world,” says Melissa Grady, Cadillac’s chief marketing officer, who adds: “Though the news can often be filled with negative headlines and polarizing positions, a platform like ‘Mavericks’ allows the Cadillac brand to create custom content that inspires people.”

The ad deals bring in much-needed revenue at a time when viewing habits are changing, but they also show how walls between news content and its sponsors “have cracked and crumbled,” says Sesno. Without care, he says, these news types of advertising agreements will add “even if subliminally, to the things that have conspired to erode trust and confidence in the news media.” Advertisers can certainly bolster the economics of journalism, but if they are not careful, they could undermine them as well.