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Health program chockful of commercial tie-ins

May 08, 2002|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

When last heard from, health reporter Anna Marie Chwastiak had been ingloriously dumped from the news team of WMAR.

She had been a victim not just of the station's search for a more versatile reporter, but also of her own blundering efforts to make money from medical institutions she had been covering.

Grieve not. She's popped up on Your Life With Dr. Anna Marie, a show seemingly focused on lifestyle issues and health tips useful in everyday life. The show is slick, far more smoothly packaged than most locally produced programs.

"Everybody is looking for the perfect medical show," Chwastiak says. On this program, she says, she can linger on a single topic for five or six minutes, well beyond the minute or so grudgingly offered on the local news.

But far from offering neutral medical advice, her 30-minute show is an alarming parade of commercial tie-ins.

A recent episode began with Chwastiak's narration over footage of the beaches of Jamaica at a resort called, appropriately enough, "Beaches." Chwastiak, looking fit and rested, promised that the vacation spot "nestled in the breathtaking hills of Ocho Rios" would show that "fun-filled activities" could be reconciled with "the peace and tranquillity of a fine wellness spa."

Chwastiak was shown ascending a mountain-climbing wall, receiving a massage and swimming in the clear blue water of the Caribbean. At several points, she briefly touched on health tips for people traveling: Stay hydrated; put on sunscreen; don't overeat.

One of the primary advertisers was "Beaches" itself. On another show, a chef from Riverwatch cafe in Essex demonstrated a way to cook salmon quickly with vegetables. The recipe looked enticing. The ad that followed for the very same cafe left a bad taste.

While Chwastiak openly hungers for national distribution, Your Life has found a home on WBFF and WNUV, the two Baltimore stations run by the Sinclair Broadcast Group. "I think her show is pretty good. It moves nicely, it's got a good quality production to it, and she brings a lot of energy," says William Fanshawe, the general manager for WBFF and WNUV.

Chwastiak, a podiatrist, says she tried to avoid the controversy generated after WMAR station officials learned she had sought contracts to create video news releases for the Baltimore-area hospitals on her beat. This time, she says she's not seeking hospitals as sponsors. They must be among the only sources who aren't.

On recent radio commercial spots, Chwastiak has endorsed "Senior Moment" - a product that is advertised repeatedly on her show.

Its manufacturer, the Edgewood-based Nutramax Laboratories, says previous studies show the ingredients of "Senior Moment" help adults overcome memory loss.

Others question its efficacy. The May 2002 Wellness Letter, a journal published by the University of California at Berkeley's public health school, states: "We have not found even one published study using this supplement specifically, nor convincing evidence that any one supplement or food can maintain or improve memory."

The comment is titled "Forget about it."

In another segment, Chwastiak steers viewers to another Nutramax product called CosaminDS, a nutrient intended to ease joint stiffness. The people she interviews - including a Nutramax executive - make the case that it is the only product of its kind that should be purchased, as it is the only one that has been peer reviewed. No skepticism is expressed.

WBFF shows the program at 9 a.m. on Wednesdays, and WNUV airs it at 6 p.m. on Sundays. Chwastiak's production company pays Sinclair to broadcast Your Life, and it is introduced with a disclaimer distancing the stations from the opinions expressed on the show. Yet she appears weekly on the WBFF morning news as a person with medical expertise.

Local stations have long proved cozy with sponsors. Three of the region's four commercial stations - all save WJZ - include health segments in their newscasts that ensure interviews with staffers from medical centers that are sponsors. And WJZ (Channel 13) also airs health-related vignettes outside its newscasts with reporter Kellye Lynn that direct viewers to a hot line from St. Joseph's Hospital, the sponsor of the spots.

Media outlets are contorting themselves in other ways in pursuit of a buck. Both Baltimore stations that currently offer local public affairs shows have consigned them to the graveyard shift - 6:30 a.m. Sundays for WJZ and midnight Mondays for WMAR (Channel 2). WBAL-TV intends to launch a new one in June to run on Sunday afternoons to replace Kweisi Mfume's former show, Bottom Line.

Meanwhile, WMAR and The Sun have joined in a promotion that promises viewers the chance to win $1,000 every night.

"In this case, there was an opportunity to help create excitement for the station as they went into May sweeps," says Mireille Grangenois, the newspaper's vice president for marketing and interactive media.

But the appeal does not involve the news one can find on the station or in the paper, and competitors carp that WMAR is trying to buy viewers. The Sun last undertook such a stunt in 1997 - with WJZ.

"It's probably the best and purest type of marketing," says Drew Berry, the general manager for WMAR. "It's like a commercial with a payoff."

As Chwastiak's program proves, it's sometimes hard to know when the hawking stops and the shows begin.

Questions? Comments? David Folkenflik can be reached at david.folkenflik@baltsun. com or 410-332-6923.

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