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NAB-RTDNA 2010: How Much Product Placement is Too Much?

Just caught an interesting RTDNA panel on product placement and local TV. Called “News and Product Integration: Too Close for Comfort?” the session was moderated by WGCL Atlanta’s Director of News and Digital Content Steve Schwaid, and featured KVVU Las Vegas News Director Adam Bradshaw, WHAG Hagerstown anchor Nikki Burdine, WCCO Minneapolis News Director Scott Libin and Hearst VP of News Barbara Maushard.

Everyone at the front of the room had some personal experience with product placement in their local programming; the question is, how much is acceptable, and what threatens the trust built up with viewers.

Meredith’s KVVU seemed the most progressive in terms of branded integration. The station made headlines a few years ago when it featured McDonald’s iced coffee cups (fake ones, no less) on the set of its morning news. Being in Vegas and all, I tuned in this morning and saw a plug for Godfather’s Bail Bonds, of all things, in the morning news just before 8.

Bradshaw said he’s OK with product placements between 7 and 9 a.m., when the news is “fun with a little news,” but less so with the 5 to 7 a.m. block, which is “news with a little fun.”

“I’m a little more comfortable with it in the zaniness section,” he said.

Maushard says Hearst has guidelines on the topic in place to help eliminate those awkward church-state discussions at the station level. “Having the guidelines in place is critical,” she said.

All seemed to agree that product placement is here to stay in local television. Maushard said some Hearst stations feature Dunkin’ Donuts branding in traffic reports. Libin said WCCO’s school closings are sponsored by the restaurant chain Perkins. Burdine said WHAG’s online polls are sponsored by Coldwell Banker’s website. Schwaid acknowledged the presence of branded coffee cups on WGCL’s morning news, and giant French fries on the set of a Saturday sports show. (For what it’s worth, the  session was not without paid plugs–the sponsor Freeman’s branding could be seen on the big screen in between slides.)

Maushard said segments such as weather and traffic might be in a different category when it comes to product placement, as viewers won’t perceive that such content could be affected by the presence of a paid sponsor, as opposed to other news content. She suggested extensive paid plugs might be at the long-term detriment to the station. Quoting Hearst’s top management, she said, “We believe there’s a correlation between our ratings and revenue success and how we manage our news product.”

The panelists said it was up to the station to balance financial pressures and the needs and tastes of viewers. “All decisions should be based on those who watch us,” said Libin, “not those who write us checks.”