You would have to forgive viewers like the one who e-mailed me last month for being a bit confused about a news segment he saw on KCBS Channel 2.
The man referred me to a 90-second segment he saw after the " CBS Evening News," wondering if it was legitimate news. It featured KCBS health reporter Lisa Sigell, interviewing the chief medical officer of City of Hope Medical Center about the promise of new cancer treatments.
In a similar piece in March, Sigell talked to another of the hospital's doctors about the threat of colorectal cancer and the importance of screening to avoid the disease.
Given that the "CBS Healthwatch" and CBS logos flashed on the screen, a viewer could be forgiven for thinking that they were watching a pair of news briefs. Both spots appeared at the end of the regular news.
But viewer beware: Not all that appears to be news is news as we once knew it.
The City of Hope website describes the KCBS segments as "part of CBS Healthwatch, targeted medical informational advertisements that have run on CBS affiliates for 12 years."
In other words, the line between editorial and advertising had been obscured again — with the hospital getting a nice chance to showcase a couple of its top people in a format that looked like news but was actually paid advertising.
This kind of thing promises to become more the norm. With technology that encourages television audiences to fast-forward through commercials, advertisers are determined to find new ways to get eyeballs on their products.
Thus the huge push to place products in movies, TV shows and, yes, even the news.
An official at KCBS, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the record, told me Tuesday that he was sure "people in the real world saw the segments for what they were."
"We employ policies that are commonplace at the L.A. Times and throughout the industry," station spokesman Mike Nelson said in a prepared statement, "to present advertising in such a way that is separate and distinct from our newsgathering efforts."
At The Times, advertisements and promotions are clearly labeled as such. But the KCBS pieces not only involved one of the station's professional journalists but were not clearly labeled as advertising.
But this may be more obvious to me because I know a little about how television advertising has evolved and have talked to sales reps inside stations who tell me about the extra inducements that are now offered.
When TV advertising managers go out to sell 30-second spots to potential clients, they sometimes offer a valuable added incentive: a news story. Buy an ad and suddenly you and your company can make the real news.
They call it "added value" advertising. The advertiser gets the "added value" of seeing its company flattered on programs that, at least nominally, are supposed to feature the most important events of the day. It's easy, it's synergistic, it's win-win … at least for the television station and the advertiser.
But it's a crying shame for viewers, who even in this free-form media era might like to believe that what's labeled "news" really is just that and not a deception designed to get them to consider a product or service that otherwise might not cross their radar screens.
The KCBS official said the City of Hope spots were not that different than standard advertising. The hospital did not get special spots that mimicked a news segment because of other advertising it had purchased, he said.
I don't have any proof to the contrary. But who can know for sure? City of Hope has paid for standard advertising on the station, both on air and on the Web. And doctors from the hospital have turned up in some of Sigell's other health coverage.
One thing about added value is that the value stems from the very lack of transparency. If we knew we were looking at another ad, instead of a legit news story, we would surely hit the mute button or head for the fridge.
I've seen a bunch of stories in recent months that make me wonder about "added value." KCBS does a story on the new "Sex and the City" slot machines at the Morongo casino. And the casino happens to be a significant advertiser at the station.
Entertainment reporter Christina McLarty delivered a frothy feature on working out at Sports Club LA. with the Lakers' Ron Artest. The itty-bitty reporter cooed and smiled, while the brawny Artest made like a he-man. McLarty told us that "Sports Club is not exactly an every-day gym. The club is a luxurious spot, a three-story gym-spa, even a gourmet cafe." The Lakers are regularly featured on KCBS' sister station, KCAL Channel 9.
The station official told me that producers did the casino piece because they saw a feature on the slot machines in the Riverside Press-Enterprise. The Artest segment connected naturally with Lakers coverage, he said.
The pieces were in no way a reward for other advertising already sold by the station or a morsel to induce greater ad spending in the future, said the official, who said station General Manager Steve Mauldin and News Director Scott Diener were not available for comment.
The City of Hope ads were produced under previous news director Nancy Bauer Gonzales. Diener would not allow news personnel in such "sponsored spots," the station official said.
Those answers make some sense. But so do my suspicions, which find so much of TV news filled with superficial flimflam. Many of the stories are so flimsy, it seems like somebody must have paid to get them on the air.
The questions go way beyond KCBS. I just took a closer look their way, after the viewer contacted me about the City of Hope pieces.
I wrote a couple of months back about a particularly glaring breach of the news/ad barrier, when KTLA Channel 5 (like the L.A. Times, owned by the Tribune Co.) devoted space on the nightly news to a series of ads from Ford Motor Co. that pretended to be news stories.
Entertainment and health reporters like Sigell provide the most obvious opening for news professionals to show they can sell-sell-sell.
If Sigell had any objection to crossing that line, you sure couldn't tell it on the air. That might rightly cause the viewer to wonder about other stories she has put on the air.
When she reported last month about the latest stem cell controversy, did the newswoman interview Dr. Michael Friedman, president and CEO of City of Hope, solely because he was the best expert available?
Or was the hospital rewarded for its ad buy? Something like friends with benefits?