RTE 'guests' charged thousands to flog brands on chat show
'Today' show denies being in breach of regulations by selling editorial airtime
State broadcaster RTE and TV3 are charging some "guests" thousands of euros to appear on daytime chat shows to sell their brands, the Sunday Independent has learned.
Broadcast regulations forbid the sale of "editorial airtime", but the State broadcaster and its rival insist they are not in breach of the rules.
Rate cards and brochures from RTE media sales and TV3's promotions departments, obtained by the Sunday Independent, confirm representatives of commercial "brands" are being offered spots on certain daytime television shows in various package deals, ranging in price from €1,000 to €15,000 per appearance, in order to plug their products or services on air.
Advertisers are allowed to sponsor a show or place products in the background as part of a set - such as the Spar shop seen in RTE's Fair City - as long at the programme is not a religious, news or current affairs show.
However, they are forbidden, under the State broadcasting code, from directly influencing the content or editorial direction of a show.
Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) compliance and policy manager Declan McLoughlin told the Sunday Independent: "You can't have a soft piece that's actually advertising. You can't buy a spot." Mr McLoughlin said the BAI has previously found some TV broadcasters guilty of infringements of its General Commercial Communications Code for airing fashion segments that were "promotional in nature", but dressed up as a talking point on a chat show.
"Of great importance is that commercial arrangements are not surreptitious and the audience is aware that they are watching a commercial communication," he added.
A promotional package for RTE's flagship daytime chat show, hosted by Maura Derrane and Daithi O Se, contains the logos of eight leading fashion brands, which have been "featured on Today" along with a description of the package deals on offer, including an in-house "representative/stylist in studio to showcase various clothes available from your brand".
It reads: "Your brand will be mentioned in the menu of the show, ie 'coming up on the show today, we take a look at wardrobe essentials from...'"
Read more: RTE racks up €366k bill for stars' wardrobes
As part of its "Fashion Segment 1" package, which costs €1,000 for seven minutes of air time, "the brand will receive a verbal intro by the presenter". It adds, "prices and description of the items will be shown on screen during the slot", while "the presenter will drive viewers to the Today show's social media for more information".
The "Fashion Segment 2" package, which costs €2,000 for seven minutes, stipulates that "the brand will be mentioned in the intro and outro by presenters" who will also "read the brand website details out on air" and "drive Today show viewers to the brand's website", along with promoting the brand logo on a plasma screen and showing prices and description of the items on screen.
Producer Marie Toft confirmed that some guests on Today "pay a fee to come on the show to advertise their product" and are charged a "range of fees" for doing so as part of a scheme called Advertiser Funded Programming (AFP).
This is despite the mandatory €160 TV licence fee paid by viewers which nets the State annual revenues of €220m a year, the bulk of which is used to fund RTE programming.
RTE refused to provide the Sunday Independent with other fee structures, or the amount of revenues generated by AFP-funded shows, citing "commercial sensitivities". However, a spokeswoman for the State broadcaster said the practice is only used on Today.
The spokeswoman also insisted that RTE complies with the broadcasting code. "All Advertiser Funded Programming is transparent, is flagged with a PP [product placement] graphic bug before the programme begins."
Chat show legend Gay Byrne this weekend said he was "astonished" to learn that the State broadcaster is charging some guests to appear on talk shows.
The pioneer of the world's longest-running talk show, The Late Late Show, said such practices are "completely foreign to me".
"I'm totally flummoxed, I'm amazed. It's certainly a new approach," he told the Sunday Independent.
Meanwhile, TV3 confirmed it also accepts payments from advertisers to appear on shows in the form of "product placement opportunities", with the fees "going to the station", according to spokeswoman Sharon McHugh.
As part of its "Creative Brand Solutions" package for its early morning current affairs chat show, Ireland AM, guests wishing to plug their brands will be charged up to €15,000.
In exchange, the commercial broadcaster tells advertisers in promotional material: "We will work closely with you and the show's producers to create an exciting and entertaining show from your venue, showcasing what you have to offer."
The station's now-defunct cookery show, Late Lunch Live, also charged fees for some guest appearances, including an €8,000 package for an eight-minute slot in which "the client can take ownership of the cookery within Late Lunch Live".
Ms McHugh defended the policy, saying: "Similar to RTE's Today programme, which also has similar product placement opportunities, this does not go against any codes set out by the BAI, to which TV3 fully complies."
The BAI confirmed it is not currently investigating any complaints over commercial sponsorship against either RTE or TV3.
However, Mr McLoughlin said the broadcasting watchdog will be closely monitoring broadcasts and will investigate any complaints by the public. Maximum penalties for infringements include a €250,000 fine and suspension or termination of a broadcast license.
Mr McLoughlin said he could not comment on any current or previous broadcast that has not been the subject of a ruling. But, he said the BAI would take issue, for example, with a fashion segment that only featured a line of spring clothing from one retailer, where "everything is positive" and there is no comparison with similar clothing lines from other retailers or brands.
"If you only choose one product and provide their prices, you have to ask what the editorial value is," he said. "We have monitored content like that and issues have arisen. Your editorial content should not be determined by financial arrangements. If I'm doing content because someone paid me, that's problematic."
Roddy Flynn, a lecturer in media policy at DCU, added: "There needs to be a clear distance between advertorial and editorial" content. Otherwise, the lines seem very blurred."
Communications Minister Alex White, a former RTE producer, refused to comment on the matter when contacted by the Sunday Independent.
"The minister does not have a role in this matter," a spokesperson said.
FACTCILE: WHAT THE BAI BROADCAST CODE STATES
THE BAI's General Commercial Communications Code states that all commercial communications "shall operate on a principle of transparency" and that "any commercial arrangement within programming shall be readily recognisable as such and the listener/viewer shall be made aware of such an arrangement".
One of the key objectives of the code is to "ensure that commercial communications do not impinge on the editorial integrity of broadcasts".
It also states presenters and other on-air personnel "shall not advertise or endorse products or services during editorial content" and that "advertisers, sponsors and providers of placed products and services shall not exercise any editorial influence over the content or scheduling of programmes".
The code also strictly forbids commercial communications featuring "persons regularly presenting news programmes", except if they are promoting appeals by registered charities or public service announcements.
The code was revised in May 2010 to allow unpaid product placement - the placing of a product or brand name in a televised show - in "limited circumstances" in which there is no actual payment in exchange for the product or service being provided.
Paid product placement is allowed in televised films, sport, drama and serials, but not on talk or chat shows "that regularly include such proportion of news and current affairs content as specified by the BAI".
According to the code, programmes that do contain product placement must ensure that "their content shall in no circumstances be influenced in such a way as to affect the responsibility and editorial independence of the broadcaster and the placement therein shall be editorially justified".
It also stipulates that the existence of product placement on a show must be identified at the beginning and end of a show, as well as when a programme resumes after an ad break.