KTVX-Channel 4 was the butt of the joke on HBO on Sunday night, and station personnel have no one to blame but themselves.
“Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” focused on “sponsored content” on local TV newscasts, and Utah’s ABC affiliate got hit twice. The station’s unforced errors left it looking more than just foolish — the news operation looked downright irresponsible, greedy and deceptive.
Well, both deceptive and easily deceived.
Oliver’s main topic in Sunday’s show was sponsored content on local stations — segments paid for by advertisers that look sort of like news but are really commercials. TV stations do it all the time, and generally do their best to downplay the Federal Communications Commission-required disclaimers.
Oliver said the stations are “doing massive harm to their credibility” with these segments, arguing that even when the sponsorships are adequately identified, “there are certain businesses local stations should not be selling themselves out for,” particularly when they air “enthusiastic, uncritical showcases for expensive treatments or devices featuring claims that are, to put it charitably, medically dubious.”
KTVX was one of three stations Oliver and his staff punked — they paid a “shockingly affordable” $1,750 to promote the “Venus Veil,” an “absurd medical product based on technology that absolutely does not exist,” in a segment on Channel 4.
Oliver gets in his first shot at KTVX with footage of anchor Brian Carlson gushing over a product billed as “the world’s first clinically tested, home use, shockwave device to treat erectile dysfunction and cellulite.” For the low, low price of $879.
Oliver’s follow on sketchy claims made by the Rocket’s manufacturers was devastating. And footage of Carlson acting like a pitchman rather than a reporter demonstrates questionable ethics at best.
It gets worse for Channel 4 and for Carlson’s colleague, Surae Chin, who’s both the station’s medical correspondent and one of the hosts of “Good Things Utah.”
The false claim was that the Venus Veil is a “sexual health blanket,” but it’s really a regular ol’ blanket.
And “Last Week Tonight” shared footage of a smiling Chin, who said she was “so excited,” interviewing the faux spokeswoman (actually a paid actress) about what Chin gushed was a “revolutionary new product.” The segment was seen by, at most, a few thousand viewers when it first aired; “Last Week Tonight” reaches 3-4 million people across HBO’s platforms.
“It seems striking that she didn’t have any follow-ups on claims that we made about the Veil that you would hope a medical correspondent would immediately take issue with,” Oliver said. Like, for instance, that the blanket would restart “the natural life cycle” of the vagina.
The faux spokeswoman told Chin that the technology was “pioneered in Germany about 80 years ago,” and Oliver said, “I would have some questions about that particular period in German history.” (In 1941, the Nazis were riding high, having conquered most of Europe.)
“This segment had zero to do with ABC4 News or news content,” said Richard Doutre Jones, vice president and general manager of KTVX. It aired on “Good Things Utah,” which is “not produced or supervised by news because it is not a news program — it is a local lifestyle show which has always included sponsored advertiser content.”
Both Chin and Carlson — who have not responded to requests for a comment — are news staffers, so that distinction may be lost on viewers.
And I don’t know that it’s a good idea to stick to this defense and hope it will blow over. This “Last Week Tonight” segment is the sort of thing that’s going to live online for a very long time.
I’m sure Chin was doing what she was told. And, honestly, I feel sorry for her. But her credibility as a medical correspondent is shot.
KTVX’s credibility also took a huge hit. “None of this was nearly difficult enough to get onto TV,” Oliver said.
But this is not just about embarrassing local TV stations and their reporters. This is about those “medically dubious” treatments and devices that are being presented “uncritically” to viewers, who are being encouraged to buy them in these sponsored segments.
Like most media outlets, The Salt Lake Tribune accepts sponsored content. Our policy is to identify it clearly as sponsored in the label, headline and at the top of the story so it’s clear to readers.
You could argue that deliberately deceiving a local TV station is dishonest — but remember, “Last Week Tonight” is a comedy show, not a newscast.
KTVX wasn’t the only Utah station that got hit on Sunday. Oliver also flashed back to 2017 and a $13.3 million fine Sinclair Broadcast paid because dozens of its stations — including KUTV-Channel 2 — aired paid segments about the Huntsman Cancer Institute without labeling them as paid advertising. Oliver’s viewers saw KUTV anchorman Mark Koelbel extolling the virtues of the Huntsman equipment, and a patient saying, “If you’re going to have prostate cancer, this is the time to have it.”
The anchorman ended the segment by saying, “In Salt Lake City Utah, this is Mark Koelbel reporting.”
Oliver questioned the veracity of that statement. “Is Mark Koelbel actually reporting? Because in retrospect, it seems more like Mark Koelbel is parroting the absurdly sunny counter-propaganda of his business daddy’s favorite money friend.”
Look, “Last Week Tonight” doesn’t break news, it uses news for Oliver to express outrage. And the show generally does a great job of crediting the people and organizations who do the actual reporting.
The problem with local TV’s use of sponsored content is nothing new, but Oliver made it seem that way on Sunday. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s worth pointing out to viewers that what they may perceive as news might actually be advertising.
The HBO show wounded both KTVX and KUTV, but those wounds were self-inflicted. And “Last Week Tonight” has done viewers in Utah and elsewhere a service by alerting them to the fact that they need to pay attention to local newscasts to avoid confusing paid segments with actual news. Because that undercuts the credibility of not just those stations, but of local news in general.
Editor’s note • Paul Huntsman, chairman of the nonprofit Salt Lake Tribune’s board of directors, is a son of Jon Huntsman Sr., who founded the Huntsman Cancer Institute.