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During a recent performance at the Lion's Lair, vocalist/griot Gil Scott-Heron preceded his musical set with an extended riff about, among other things, a media scenario in which virtually everything has a price tag. "Now you hear, 'The weather is brought to you by...'" he said. Grinning, he added, "Motherfucker used to come all by itself."
Not anymore. Denver newscasts are packed to the gills with advertisements, whether they appear in commercial blocks or not. On the Channel 2 broadcasts analyzed in "Show and Sell" (November 25, 1999), for instance, closed captioning came courtesy of US West, the evening's most noteworthy sports highlight was dubbed the "Dodge Different Play of the Day," and a video snippet pointed out that anchors Ernie Bjorkman and Wendy Brockman presented nightly news updates on KOSI-FM, a station owned by Chicago's Tribune Broadcasting, which also holds the title to Channel 2. And that's not to mention cross-promotional deals between Channel 9 and the Denver Post and Channel 4 and the Rocky Mountain News that hype the next day's newspapers under the guise of providing a preview.
Now, however, even public service announcements are becoming billboards. And in one spot that recently aired in Denver, a news anchor personally got into the act.
The PSA-as-pitch phenomenon is a fairly new one. Once upon a time, stations attempting to meet FCC standards would simply play announcements provided to them by charities and other do-gooder organizations. But in recent years, canny local television execs have realized that by producing their own PSAs, they can fulfill such requirements while subtly plugging their own news talent -- hence a long-running series of Channel 9 announcements in which weather personality Kathy Sabine talks about reading, learning and staying in school.
At the same time, news operations have generally tried to maintain a distinction between appearances in PSAs and plain ol' commercials, in large part because journalists who try to use their hard-won credibility to pad their pocketbooks regularly catch heat for doing so. Nationally, David Brinkley was called on the carpet by media pundits for agreeing to plug Archer Daniels Midland, a frequent subsidizer of ABC's This Week With David Brinkley, his longtime Sunday-morning discussion show, approximately ten minutes after retiring; locally, veteran Channel 4 anchor Bob Palmer raised some eyebrows two years ago when he took advantage of his own retirement by becoming a spokesman for both United HealthCare, an enormous HMO, and U.S. Home Corporation, the builder of (yes, you guessed it) retirement homes. Sportscaster Tony Zarrella, who's been filling Ron Zappolo's chair at Channel 9 since Zappolo left to anchor Fox's forthcoming news program, didn't wait for his golden years to cash in; a couple of years back he hyped Keystone ski area.
Questions could also be raised about the eagerness with which a flock of local television types, including Channel 4's Brian Maass and Raj Chohan, agreed to appear in the CBS miniseries Perfect Murder, Perfect Town, author Lawrence Schiller's adaptation of his bestseller about the death of JonBenét Ramsey. Are they really reporters, or do they just play them on TV?
Considering this environment, it makes perfect sense that more and more local PSAs are being sponsored by corporations. But while the majority of such announcements feature a faceless announcer linking the names of the station and the company that paid to put its logo on the screen, a Channel 9 message seen frequently in February cut out the middleman: Weekend anchor and investigative specialist Ward Lucas urged drivers to buckle their seatbelts on behalf of "9News and Progressive" -- the latter being Progressive Insurance.
When asked if he felt at all uncomfortable having to mention Progressive, or if by doing so, he might cause some observers to feel he was offering an implied endorsement, Lucas declined comment, referring all queries on the subject to Roger Ogden, Channel 9's general manager. For his part, Ogden concedes that the PSA might have been handled better: "We typically try to separate those things," he says. "There was some discussion about it internally, and I think in the future we'll find a slightly different way to do it." But he stops far short of promising that future announcements will be free of corporate collaboration.
"These are initiatives that are either developed by the station or by people who do business with us who have a particular interest," Ogden allows. "There are a number of corporations interested in doing something good for the community, and I think the opportunity for them to pursue that, and get credit for pursuing it, is perfectly fine. And it's a trend that's not restricted to television. You're seeing it in newspapers, too."
Oh, I forgot to mention something: The information in this column about watching out for subtly disguised advertising campaigns has been brought to you as a public service by Cocoa Puffs, a wonderfully sugary product that gave me the energy to type the words you're reading right now. And now we return you to our regular programming.
The Channel 9 programming that grabbed the most attention last week was helicopter footage of a police chase that ended near the point where I-25 and I-225 meet with the capture of Steven Bilson, a man wanted on a couple of Jefferson County warrants (he's also been linked to a murder investigation in California). The chopper, piloted by Al Verley, shadowed a van driven by Bilson while onboard traffic reporter Tony LaMonica narrated the action, of which there was plenty: After the van blew a tire, Bilson took off across the freeway on foot before surrendering.