I have to wonder how much TV viewers have noticed the blurring of news and advertising content in Olympics coverage.
We've been treated to an orgy of NBC-centric sports reporting from the London games, seriously fudging the line between covering a major news event and creating an entertainment property for exploitation in every way possible.
Still, Tampa NBC affiliate WFLA-Ch. 8 is airing a half-hour broadcast on the games, dubbed The Olympic Zone, that pushes boundaries in blending advertising and news content. It is a concept NBC has presented to affiliates across the country, allowing each station to air a mix of local content and Olympics stories from the network's reporters.
Billed as "special coverage of the Olympic games," each show opens at 7:30 p.m. weekdays with an update on the games' medal count delivered by WFLA sportscaster Dan Lucas, leading into a show sprinkled with feature stories provided by NBC outside the network's coverage.
One story in Monday's show — a worshipful piece on how Omega handles timing for all the races — was preceded by a sponsorship message from the company and felt like a slickly-produced infomercial.
The lines really blur not long into each program, when Lucas turns over the spotlight to Cyndi Edwards, co-host of WFLA's Daytime talk show, for segments featuring sponsors who have paid to be featured in the broadcast. Edwards does similar work on Daytime, where some guests pay to be featured and the show is produced outside the station's news department.
This week, Edwards has touted Daniels Chevrolet, assuring viewers "their customer service is worthy of a gold medal," and hosted cooking segments with representatives from Sweetbay supermarkets.
The Sweetbay appearances are preceded by a message alerting viewers they have been sponsored. There is no on-air message before Edwards' segments begin at the car dealership, though the complimentary tone and consistently upbeat message leaves little doubt and a message airs later in the broadcast.
The way in which the segments are featured — with Edwards appearing briefly at the show's start and then introduced by Lucas as if she was just another correspondent — blend paid programming and news reports in a way which journalism ethics experts usually avoid.
Don North, news director at WFLA, expressed no misgivings with the arrangement. "It's happening, so I must be comfortable with it," he said.
As the competition for advertising dollars heats up, such programs become a slippery slope for broadcasters, encouraging bolder blends of news and commercial messages.