Blurred Lines: A Tricky Transition From Editorial To Promotional Content

A case of unfortunate timing this past weekend had some listeners seeing a plot where none existed.

A heavy schedule of underwriting messages for the new Fox comedy series The Last Man on Earth was running on NPR last week leading up to the show's debut Sunday evening. Independently, Weekend Edition Sunday had an interview with the show's star, Will Forte. The interview and the paid promotions collided Sunday morning when the interview was followed just a few minutes later by a paid promotion for the show, giving the appearance that there was a quid pro quo.

The close proximity was unfortunate because NPR has a set of procedures to make sure that kind of appearance of conflict does not happen. As per the policy, the show's producers got a list of funders slated to run in the show and when editors noticed that two paid promotions for The Last Man on Earth were going to run (one each hour) they were moved as far away as possible from the interview.

What the editors didn't know was that there was a third paid promotion, adjacent to the top-of-the-hour newscast. So the interview, which ended one hour, was almost immediately followed by Fox's own funding credit in the newscast.

Unlike the funding credit in the body of the newsmagazine, "We didn't know that that was coming and we don't control it," said Sarah Oliver, the executive producer of Weekend Edition.

The nearly back-to-back interview and funding credit had some listeners concerned about a connection.

Glenn Rose of Lexington, Va., wrote to my office: "What an outrage!! After a week of paid plugs for a new show on Fox – The Last Man on Earth – National Public Radio is doing a news segment with the lead and only actor in the program on Sunday morning."

Another listener, Rob Albers, added, "to blur the line between editorial and 'advertising' in such a ham-handed fashion is quite shocking. Please persuade me that I'm wrong, that the sponsorship provided by the TV network in no way influenced the decision to dedicate precious NPR air-time to sitcom drivel."

No such influence was exerted. "We make our editorial decisions completely separate" from the funding process, Oliver said, noting that the interview had been in the works since a producer suggested it on Jan. 7. And, she added, "coverage of new and notable TV series, movies, books and other forms of entertainment is a standard part of Weekend Edition's cultural programming."

A couple listeners suggested that in the future, NPR should make an on-air disclosure when an interview is also the subject of a promotional campaign. I don't know of another news organization that does that, nor do I see it as necessary; editorial coverage and sponsor messages often overlap without listeners seeing a link (To name just one example, Netflix recently ran funding credits for House of Cards, which was the subject of Feb. 27 Morning Edition piece.) In this case, it really was just bad timing.

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