TV deals are Rx for profit

TV/RADIO COLUMN

Pacts: While mutually beneficial, TV stations' agreements with health organizations blur the line between news and commercials.

April 18, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

When it comes to TV reporting on medicine in this city, you almost can't tell the players without a spreadsheet.

To aid its new morning show, WBFF recently entered pacts with two local medical centers ensuring their doctors will appear regularly as experts.

The three-hour news show on Fox 45, from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. on weekdays, creates added appetite for locally produced content on the channel. And viewers have demonstrated strong interest in health-related news. But some say the station also derives its inspiration from another source: the bottom line.

Both MedStar Health, a consortium of seven hospitals, and the University of Maryland Medical System are significant advertisers on the station. Of special interest: WBFF's agreement with Maryland includes a guarantee that the medical center will spend at least 18 percent of its ad budget on the Fox affiliate and sister station WNUV.

"As a business person, they're giving me a benefit of organizing and getting the docs here," says Bill Fanshawe, general manager for WBFF and WNUV. "I'm making sure that, in return, they don't nick me" by reducing spending.

Fanshawe is trodding a path well-worn by his competitors. MedStar advertises heavily on WMAR, which appears more likely to feature its doctors than those from other hospital centers in the station's news segments. WBAL regularly broadcasts segments sponsored by Mercy Medical Center with Mercy's doctors. The hospital's advertising budget on WBAL has been estimated at $200,000 a year, according to published news reports.

Executives at all three stations say the payments are merely for the ads they air. News directors, not the hospital marketing managers, maintain ultimate control over what topics get covered, officials say. Doctors from other institutions can appear at other times.

First disclosed last spring, the practice makes the stations happy: they get qualified physicians to talk about medical issues. They also lock in ad revenues.

The medical centers are happy: Baltimore-area viewers see their doctors on the air, represented as authorities. "There's a sense of credibility with the news," says David Lee Brond, the University of Maryland Medical System's marketing director. "Some people believe editorial more than they believe advertising - it brings that air of credibleness."

Yet several observers say news programs undermine their own authority by orchestrating news coverage and commercials under the same agreement. Doctors and hospitals can come under attack for fraud and malpractice. When that happens, viewers may question whether they're getting the full story - even when they are.

"You throw the whole question of credibility in the air," says Carl Gottlieb, a former news director at WTTG in Washington who's now the deputy director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "The more you put somebody else's logo on your newscast, the more people have the right to question what you're putting on the air."

The medical centers that haven't made such pacts, even if they are advertisers, say they get shut out.

"They don't come to us as often as they used to," says Elaine Freeman, executive director of communications at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. "It's our belief it's because they have agreements with the other hospitals."

Others agree. "It makes it harder for us to get a fair shake," says Jill Bloom, director of marketing and corporate communications for LifeBridge, which includes Sinai and Northwest hospitals.

WJZ doesn't regularly broadcast a sponsored health feature in its newscasts that includes interviews with that sponsor's medical staff. A monthly news item subsidized by St. Joseph Medical Center, however, does include medical information and a phone number at the hospital for viewers seeking related tests.

On the other side of town, WMAR medical correspondent Anna Marie Chwastiak - Dr. Anna Marie on air - is proposing to cut out the middleman. With two other broadcast veterans, including longtime WMAR cameraman George Stover, she has formed the Chwastiak Production Group.

In exchange for a fee, Chwastiak recently offered to tape "video news releases" for Maryland, Hopkins and other major health organizations. Under one such proposal, Chwastiak's group would produce four to six medical segments each month, and send the tapes to 50 top markets. "If I can help a hospital pitch a story, and present it in a teasable way - `this is a great story and here's why' - then I've done my job," says Chwastiak, who holds a medical degree in podiatry.

She says video news releases could also serve the public, citing as an example clips she would produce for researchers seeking subjects for clinical tests.

Video news releases are often snatched up by local television stations, even in major markets, whose reporters narrate ready-made scripts over footage they'd be hard-pressed to obtain otherwise. Under the proposal, the client would have had the right to pick the stories and the physicians.

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