With summer ending, local television news stations recently rolled out their back-to-school features. In 10 big cities, that meant an appearance by a young mother and "toy expert" named Elizabeth Werner.
Werner whipped through pitches for seven toys in just a few minutes. Perky and positive-plus, Werner seemed to wow morning news people in towns like Detroit, Atlanta and Phoenix. They oohed and aahed as they smelled Play-Doh, poked at mechanical bugs and strummed an electronic guitar she brought to the studio.
Though parents might have welcomed the advice, and even bought some of the toys, they probably would have liked to know that Werner serves as a spokeswoman for hire, not an independent consumer advocate. She touted only products from companies that forked over $11,000 (the initial asking price, anyway) to be part of her back-to-school television "tour."
But viewers in several of the cities would have had no way of knowing that Werner's pitches amounted to paid advertising, because their local news stations failed to meet their legal obligation to identify the segments as paid promotions.
Local television news has become a hotbed for pay-to-play promotions. I've previously chronicled how L.A. stations offered breathless stories about City of Hope Medical Center and Ford Motor Co. without telling viewers that the subjects of these "news" stories actually paid to get star treatment.
The trend promises to continue and grow. TV news producers must fill an expanding news hole, particularly in the mornings, where many news programs have been extended from three to four, five and even six hours. And advertisers, fearful of being blocked by viewers with video recorders and mute buttons, don't mind paying for promotional appearances that make them more visible and credible.
The practice goes way beyond Los Angeles and a product or two. Be warned if you are watching a self-proclaimed consumer advocate on local TV news pitching cars, electronics, travel and much more. There's a good chance that your friendly small-screen expert has taken cash to sell, sell, sell.
Simply to uphold their own standards for truth and transparency, you would hope that TV news outlets would tell viewers about such payments. Federal law requires disclosure, too, "when a broadcast station transmits any matter for which money, service or other valuable consideration is either directly or indirectly paid." That would include noting that advocates giving an opinion about a product have been paid to do so.
Station operators must "exercise reasonable diligence" in trying to discern whether promotional payments have been made, FCC regulations say. Stations that fail to disclose, with either a spoken or on-screen disclaimer, can be fined up to $37,500 per violation. But you don't hear about a flood of penalties coming out of Washington, do you?
Werner is a lawyer who worked for a couple of toy companies before she went into the promotion business. She told me that the company that hires her to do the tours — New Jersey-based DWJ Television — scrupulously notifies TV stations that toy makers pay for the pitches. DWJ founder Dan Johnson, an ABC News veteran of decades gone by, said the same.
So I picked three stations and morning programs that Werner visited over the summer — Fox 2 in Detroit, Fox 5's "Good Day Atlanta" and the independent KTVK's "Good Morning Arizona" in Phoenix to see how they plugged the Werner segments. A spokesperson for the two Fox stations and the news director at the Phoenix outlet told me they had been told absolutely nothing about Werner being paid to tout products, which ranged from a Play-Doh press to a new Toy Story video game to the Paper Jamz electronic guitar.
Assuming they really didn't get any notice of Werner's pay arrangement (and the Phoenix station offered one e-mail that didn't disclose the sponsorship), that would put the stations in the clear, right?
Wrong. Anyone who has spent more than five minutes in a newsroom knows that when someone comes through the door offering their expertise, you start asking questions. With Werner, a reasonably diligent news producer, to paraphrase the FCC, would have started by demanding: So, toy gal, do you get a natural high about mechanical bugs and talking books or is someone paying you to make like Tom Hanks in "Big?"
It's a no-brainer for TV producers to ask where experts are coming from, said DWJ's Johnson. Believing that an expert would tour the country without pay to tout products is, he said, like believing in the tooth fairy.
Werner does a few tours a year, as do spokespeople who pitch other products like tech gear and fashion, with DWJ as middleman. And the firm is just one of several production companies and PR firms pumping the pay-to-play material out to local news stations around America.
Neither Werner nor her supervisors at the New Jersey firm would say how they split the money from the tours, which could have amounted to as much as $66,000 for the back-to-school roundup. (Assuming each of six principal sponsors paid the $11,000 initial asking price.)
Werner insisted the money doesn't matter. She said she will not pitch toys she and her two children have not personally used and enjoyed.
"I am not going to include any toy that doesn't do what it says it's going to do, that isn't fun, that doesn't fit the theme of the tour," she said. "If I bring out crappy products, the consumers are not going to want to hear from me and the stations aren't going to bring me back."
She said she takes nothing for her appearances on two national programs — ABC's "The View" and NBC's "Today" — that have helped her build a reputation in the news business.
I heard much the same argument from the public relations representative for Chris Byrne. Dubbed "The Toy Guy," Byrne is another big name in the toy promotion business, as an industry analyst and content director for TimeToPlayMag.com, a website that reviews toys.
The spokeswoman and public relations agent for the website, Michele Litzky, said Byrne has given his unbiased assessment of toys for many years. He picks products for TimeToPlayMag.com and only afterward considers including the products on television appearances he makes, Litzky said.
Litzky said her firm arranges the television tours and receives payment from toy companies that will be publicized via the tours. She said she uses some of the money to reimburse Byrne for his hotels, meals and travel expenses.
When I suggested that traditional news organizations wouldn't allow the subjects of reviews to pick up such payments, lest the money have an undue influence on the reviewer, Litzky scoffed. Byrne believes in some toys so much he includes them in his promotional tours if they haven't paid a penny, even for expenses, she said. "I have worked hard to keep his programs very credible," she said. "He is a resource for parents and gift givers."
I told the PR woman I thought consumers would be better served if they had a fuller understanding of how the Toy Guy's expenses were paid on some of his toy-touting tours. She said it was enough that television viewers knew that Byrne worked at TimeToPlayMag.com.
That seems to be the prevailing wisdom inside the local television news business these days, as well. It's a sort of don't-ask-don't-tell policy for the retail sector. Nobody in local TV seems to be asking much about where these unsolicited pitches come from. And they sure aren't telling their audiences, at least with any regularity. Consumers are the last to know.