Business

On TV news, lines blur between journalism, ads

‘Sponsored content’ brings money, questions

Joel Idelson (left) of Allen & Gerritsen marketing firm interviewed entrepreneur Jeff Raider in a MyTV38 “content” piece.

MyTV38/boston.cbslocal.com

Joel Idelson (left) of Allen & Gerritsen marketing firm interviewed entrepreneur Jeff Raider in a MyTV38 “content” piece.

Viewers who tuned in to the 10 o’clock news on MyTV38 Thursday night may have seen the future of local broadcasting. The question is whether they knew what they were watching.

Near the end of the telecast, the station aired an interview with Wellesley native Jeff Raider, founder of Harry’s, the online razor retailer. The segment ran during what is normally a commercial break but resembled journalism, with an interviewer posing questions to a business leader.

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In fact, the piece was something in between — not quite journalism yet not exactly advertising. CBS and Boston marketing firm Allen & Gerritsen simply call it “content,” the first of its kind on Boston airwaves and possibly the first in the country.

It represents one form of marketing often referred to as “native advertising” or “sponsored content,” which promises new revenue for money-starved news companies, but also raises questions among media ethicists.

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In the case of MyTV38, the segment was the debut of a weekly conversation series called “A Few Good Minutes,” to be produced by the entertainment arm of Allen & Gerritsen and shown during newscasts by CBS-owned WSBK-TV.

Hatched over a breakfast meeting between CBS Boston president Mark Lund and A&G vice president Joel Idelson more than a year ago, “A Few Good Minutes” offers some of the same informational qualities viewers would expect from a reporter’s interview but without the probing inquiries and tense moments. Idelson, friendly and smooth, handles the on-camera questioning.

The partnership between a news station and an ad agency brings together different types of media companies that historically have maintained a wall of separation but are increasingly intertwined, as news outlets seek alternative revenue streams and marketers try to embed their messages in the programs and pages people want to consume — a strategy known as native advertising or sponsored content.

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In one prominent example, The New York Times last year launched T Brand Studio, which produces stories, graphics, and videos that promote corporate interests and appear on the Times’s website. A page devoted to the subject of female incarceration, for instance, served as a native ad for the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black” and was marked as a paid post.

The Globe in April hired a director of content marketing to oversee the creation of sponsored content.

If “A Few Good Minutes” is well received on CBS’s secondary station in Boston, it could be replicated on WBZ-TV (Channel 4) and potentially some of the corporation’s 27 other local news stations across the United States, according to Avry Sandler, director of content development and commercial operations for CBS Boston.

“I think the audience is looking for new opportunities to consume content,” said Lund. “This is a way for us to break out of the confines of the traditional broadcast model, being flexible and going where the marketplace is going.”

The growing use of native advertising threatens to leave viewers confused about whether they are watching unbiased reporting or promotional material, according to some media specialists.

“What they’re doing is blurring the lines between news, entertainment, and advertising,” said John Carroll, a former advertising and television news executive who is now a professor of mass communication at Boston University. “The whole idea is to keep it up in the air: What exactly is this?”

Carroll, who watched Thursday’s telecast, added that the format is just newsy enough to disarm people who have built up a subconscious defense against marketing. For one thing, Idelson was not identified as working for Allen & Gerritsen, leaving open the possibility that he could be a reporter.

‘What they’re doing is blurring the lines between news, entertainment, and advertising.’

John Carroll, BU professor and former TV news and advertising executive 
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But others say native ads can be done properly and help news outlets survive by offsetting ad revenue that has shifted to the Internet or disappeared altogether.

S. Adam Brasel, a marketing professor at Boston College who also watched the broadcast, said he thought the distinction between the news and “A Few Good Minutes” was very clear.

Moreover, he likes the series’ hybrid model. It can’t be labeled pure advertising, since the people and companies to be featured in “A Few Good Minutes” — including actor Donnie Wahlberg and hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons — are not necessarily A&G clients and will not pay the agency or the station for the attention.

Lund said that could change, but the plan for now is to find a corporate sponsor, separate from the companies being profiled, to underwrite the series. Until then, A&G is bearing production costs and CBS Boston is forfeiting revenue from five commercial spots every time it airs a new installment lasting 2 minutes and 30 seconds. Longer versions of the videos will have a dedicated page on the CBS Boston website.

“A Few Good Minutes” differs from traditional journalism because Allen & Gerritsen is motivated not only by a goal to inform the public but also a desire to showcase and grow the entertainment side of its business, which makes similar production services available to its clients. Neither the station nor the agency is paying the other.

A series that’s hard to categorize could be attractive to sponsors looking to grab the attention of viewers who otherwise skip or tune out ads, according to Brasel.

“By setting it up as more of an interview and storytelling piece, it might get past the whole, ‘This is a commercial, shut the brain off’ kind of thing,” he said. “Maybe the messages will come through better — and they don’t have to be deceptive to do that — but they can’t look like a normal commercial.”

Lund stressed that avoiding confusion is a top priority for CBS Boston. “A Few Good Minutes” will not be introduced by a news anchor, the way a reporter’s interview would be. Instead, a short video montage with background music will precede each segment — kind of like the opening credits of a TV show — and identify it as an A&G Entertainment presentation.

The disclaimer, along with the stylized production of the interviews and the casual dress and demeanor of Idelson, are meant to convey that what viewers are seeing is not a regular part of the newscast that has been vetted and fact-checked by professional journalists.

“Journalists are trained to pull out pertinent information, but when you just want to have a conversation with someone at a bar and kick back, relax and have a true heart to heart, Joel has that ability,” said Sandler.

Idelson doesn’t claim to be a journalist and said he doesn’t want to fool anyone into thinking he is one. He describes himself as a storyteller and an innovator.

And he’s convinced his latest “content” will soon become a national model.

“I think when people see what we’re doing, they’re not going to have any choice,” he said.

Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.
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