Rating Arco's new television saga: unbiased news or just commercial?

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

What's an oil company to do when it feels it's getting short shrift on the nightly news? Or when it believes the only energy stories that make it on the tube are 90-second pieces on labyrinthine gasoline lines? And when -- to make things worse -- the industry's credibility is not exactly soaring?

Well, it could do its own television show. And -- here's the coup -- to do it so well that some television stations actually air at least part of the program it produces.

This is exactly what the Atlantic Richfield Company (Arco) has done.

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But there is a twist to this public relations story: "Energy Update," the 30 -minute monthly news magazine Arco sends free to some 160 stations here and abroad, is not your average corporate "puff" piece.

Rather than taking the one-sided, often self-serving, tack of most press releases, Anthony P. Hatch, manager of corporate relations at Arco and a television news veteran, decided that to be credible the show had to be objective. That has meant bringing in oil industry critics to air their views and even covering energy stories that have nothing to do with Arco projects.

"We have dared, quote unquote, to put on people who take exception to Arco's position," says Mr. Hatch, referring particularly to several early shows featuring Dan Lundberg, a combative industry critic and publisher of the widely respected Lundberg Letter, an oil newsletter.

"We do it to maintain credibility," he says.

Nonetheless, some newscasters are leery of the Show.

"We reviewed many tapes, and what we saw in Energy Update was basically a bias toward what Arco is doing and nothing about where the direction of national energy policy as a whole is headed," says Glen Burns, science editor and meteorologist for WTCN-TV in Minneapolis, which asked Arco to stop sending the tapes.

"It was an Arco commercial -- lengthened," he insists.

Other critics say the show is boring, "a lot of talking heads," says one, using the television phrase for footage that features static pictures of people talking.

Some stations, including cable operations, have aired the program in its entirely. But others complain that the segments -- three per show, averaging 10 minutes each in length -- are too long to fit into news broadcasts.

Energy Update pieces range from news stories on the Alaska lands legislation to features on solar aquaculture farms. Coming stories include a cartoon on how big a barrel of oil is and a feature on Michael Haydon, a leading neon sculptor.

Hatch says he has been given free rein with the show and intends to cover stories that may even be embarrassing to the oil industry.

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