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Several months ago, I was startled while listening to a morning radio news program. After an update on the weather, which was cold and snowy, one of the anchors said, "This rough weather can cause a lot of road problems, but one way to beat the hazards of winter driving is with a new all-wheel drive sport-utility vehicle from ..." and he proceeded to read a commercial for a Ford dealership.
The famous phrase "And now a word from our sponsor" seems to be losing its frequency on the airwaves. Not only was the car commercial seamlessly woven into the lineup of news stories, but the announcer gave a hearty endorsement at the conclusion: "And tell them (his name here) sent you!"
Obviously the barriers separating news from overt advertising are tumbling faster than I realized. Someday soon, you might see Dan Rather look up from a script and say, "That last story left a bad taste in my mouth, so I use Certs to keep my breath feeling cool and clean. Certs and CBS Evening News bring a sparkling, minty freshness to a stale, sour world!"
Fortunately, we haven't reached that point yet, as evidenced by the recent imbroglio surrounding Mary Civiello, a freelance TV reporter in New York who has often appeared on CNBC. During the Memorial Day weekend, she suddenly popped up in a commercial for Benecol, a margarine product made by Johnson & Johnson.
Her sales pitch generated static among media critics and the feedback from CBNC was loud and clear. Company officials decided that Ms. Civiello and the network are not on the same wavelength, so she will not be getting any more calls from CNBC assignment editors.
In fairness to Civiello, it's not as if she was blazing a new trail into forbidden territory. Commercialism and TV journalism have been friendly traveling companions since the days of John Cameron Swayze and the Camel News Caravan. Sponsors know reporters are regarded by the audience as credible and intelligent. So if you wanted to produce a credible advertisement, what could be more logical than making it look just like a real news story, complete with a genuine TV reporter?
It seems likely that TV journalists will continue to redefine their roles as the medium becomes increasingly self-absorbed. Next time you're watching TV news, notice how much time is devoted to celebrities, Hollywood updates, and promotional "news stories" about other shows.
Ultimately, TV may evolve into an electronic free-trade zone where news, entertainment, and advertising blend together. At that point, some producer will surely want to make a TV movie about Civiello. The big question is whether she should portray herself, or have a professional actress handle the role. I have a feeling the folks at Johnson & Johnson are already looking into it.