Two major station groups said that they were reviewing their processes for airing sponsored content following a segment that aired on HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver in which the show paid to get an interview on the air featuring a spokesperson for a fake “sexual wellness blanket.”
The crux of the segment was Oliver’s criticism of local stations that air sponsored programming that look like news segments. Even though they are labeled as being sponsored segments, Oliver said that they still allow people to pay to get on the air with dubious medical devices and claims.
So Oliver and his team hatched a fake device, a “sexual wellness blanket,” and then set up a fake spokesperson to be interviewed by an on-air personality for segments on three stations, KTVX-TV in Utah, KVUE-TV in Austin and KMGH-TV in Denver. Oliver said that the segments ran after the show paid $1,750, $2,650 and $2,800, respectively, to each station.
A spokesperson for Tegna, owner of the Austin station, said that the segment aired on FYI Austin, is a two-minute commercial spot that is not a part of the KVUE newscast.
“While it is a commercial spot, it was an error to air it, and we are reviewing our processes, so this doesn’t happen again,” the spokesperson said.
A spokesperson for The E.W. Scripps Co., owner of the Denver station, said that they “take the integrity of our content very seriously.” The segment ran on a sponsored show called Mile High Living.
“We create clear distinctions between local TV news programming and local TV non-news lifestyle programming, including using non-news employees and clearly identifying sponsorships in non-news shows,” the spokesperson said. “Our non-news shows were created to help support local businesses and entrepreneurs who are looking for new ways to market their products, and we believe our viewers understand the differences. We are vetting our review processes for non-news segments to ensure our stations follow the proper standards.”
The general manager of the Utah station and a spokesperson for owner Nexstar did not immediately return a request for comment.
Stations are required to make sponsorship identification announcements, but Oliver made the argument that too often the labels are fleeting to the viewer.
In the segment, Oliver also referenced the $13.4 million in FCC fines imposed on Sinclair Broadcast Group in 2017 for failing to identify spots promoting the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Utah as sponsored content. The company eventually reached a $48 million settlement with the FCC to close three cases, including the disclosure of sponsored content. The current acting chairwoman of the FCC, Jessica Rosenworcel, criticized the settlement as insufficient. The issue of sponsorship identification also was before the FCC last month, when the commission voted to require when stations lease time on their airwaves.