Adriana Kahane had received phone calls before from producers who said they couldn't wait to tell the story of her Santa Monica-based organic juice company.
The small-business owner found the pitches for television exposure usually too good to be true. Still, she got her hopes up that the producers of Lifetime television's "The Balancing Act" really would introduce her products to a wider audience, no strings attached.
FOR THE RECORD:
"The Balancing Act": The "On the Media" column in the Nov. 3 Calendar section said that Danielle Knox, a host of "The Balancing Act" on Lifetime cable television, also works as a weekend news anchor at the CBS affiliate in Atlanta. Knox left the anchor job when she took "The Balancing Act" job in October. —
Just as she prepared to commit to a segment on the chatty morning women's talk show, however, Kahane said she was told she would need to deliver more than press releases and samples of her organic blood-orange juice. O2 Media Inc., the producer, also wanted $38,500.
"They said we had to have some skin in the game," Kahane recalled, chuckling at the thought. "I said, 'I'm sorry, but I didn't know that journalists required you to have skin in the game to tell your story.' "
Kahane's Dream Foods International won't be appearing on "The Balancing Act," one of two programs produced by Florida-based O2 Media that look like standard talk and home-improvement shows but function more like infomercials.
The shows are part of a promotional wave sweeping television these days. Some companies pay to get plugs embedded in local TV news. Others pay so their products can star in "reality" shows like "The Biggest Loser" and "Project Runway." And producers probe relentlessly for ways to slip advertising inside programs, because old-fashioned advertising increasingly gets screened out by the owners of digital video recorders.
Though old-school ads can be incessant and cloying — witness the recent midterm election tsunami — they at least have a charming lack of guile. We can decide whether to tune in or step away for a snack and some fresh air. Programs like "The Balancing Act," and its O2 Media cousin, "Designing Spaces" on WE TV, in contrast, will fool at least some viewers, who will not understand that many of the featured companies and products did not exactly earn their airtime. They bought it.
The shows air in the mornings and don't have huge viewership. The fact they have a foothold at all, though, indicates how desperate television is for new sources of cash and how pay-to-play content continues to get traction. Federal regulators, distracted and outmanned, won't demand more clarity in advertising anytime soon.
In fact, the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission have not been clear enough about just what's allowed. The FCC requires broadcast television outlets to notify viewers any time they air content that has paid for the privilege. But the agency's disclosure rules don't apply to cable outlets, where O2's programs appear, and that constitutes half of all television viewing. A push to expand the guidelines to cable stalled two years ago.
The FTC last year put out a directive notifying bloggers that they must tell their readers when they endorse products for cash or prizes. So even small-time "mommy bloggers" must tell readers when they get a washer or mixer in exchange for a review. If the agency has recently spanked TV outlets for doing something similar, I haven't heard about it.
Would viewers of a recent episode of "The Balancing Act" know that the segment about surgical difficulties was sponsored by Complication Insurance, a firm that sells policies to protect against unforeseen circumstances? Or would the audience know that the piece about defeating back-to-school illnesses came courtesy of Cold-EEZE, a product that was featured in the segment as a way to ease symptoms fast?
Principals in the two companies appeared, front and center, so that should have been a clue. And the program hosts burbled with abundant enthusiasm. "Sounds like it just adds security and peace of mind," host Danielle Knox, also a weekend news anchor for Atlanta's CBS affiliate, said of the surgical insurance.
So why not simply disclose the paid partnership, with either subtitles or disclaimers from the hosts?
Stacey Kannenberg, a Wisconsin mother who writes a blog and books about preparing children for school, turned down a pitch from "Designing Spaces" that came with the same $38,500 price tag. She said she thought her publications should be featured based on their merit, not whether she would pay.
"The people who are losing in the end are the consumers who don't realize these are paid segments," Kannenberg said. "The playing field isn't level."
Mark Alfieri, founder of O2 Media, said the shows sometimes feature companies or nonprofits that don't pay to appear. He said he didn't know about the complaint from Kahane's juice company but that it's "not our pattern and practice" to delay telling potential partners about "production" fees.
Additional disclosure of the sponsorship payments seems unnecessary, Alfieri told me, because viewers likely understand that "The Balancing Act" and "Designing Spaces" feature companies that work closely with the programs.
He said O2 Media requires the payments (only a fraction of the total cost of production, he said) to make sure companies don't back out at the last minute, when his company has invested substantially in their segments. "We have found that if our partners don't have a financial interest," he said, "they don't take it as seriously."
Companies would flake out on free exposure on national television? The producer insists it's true.
"What you get out of our program is finding a solution to an everyday problem," Alfieri said. "In this venue, we are not interested in selling. We are interested in educating consumers on brands."
That seems like a distinction without a difference to me.
I called Lifetime television — home of "Project Runway" and "The Fairy Jobmother" — here in L.A. to see what the company thought of the production company charging for appearances and whether it should clearly disclose the pay-to-play segments.
I got back a one-sentence prepared statement — from Les Eisner, a vice president for communications — that didn't address either of those issues. "Lifetime is not involved in the production," the statement said, in part. Hardly a ringing endorsement, but hardly a cancellation notice either.
This is the new world of what O2 Media calls "brandutainment." Makes me almost wish for a return of those political ads.