John Oliver recently played Utah’s ABC 4, the cable news channel also known as KTVX. Perhaps more accurately: ABC 4 played itself.

Oliver created a company to pitch advertorial segments — something between an advertisement and a reported story — to local cable news channels in different states. It’s the kind of segment some local channels air regularly during daytime television.

Oliver’s undercover crew pitched segments about the Venus Veil, a blanket designed to improve sexual health. The catch was that the Venus Veil is a made-up product based on made-up science.

They didn’t tell the news channels that part, but little did ABC 4 seem to care in the first place. The channel aired the segment on Good Things Utah, the channel’s daytime show that regularly hosts paid content.

As the segment began, text reading “sponsored content” appeared on the screen for 19 seconds then disappeared as the host and the actor got into their discussion. Such disclosures are required by the Federal Communications Commission, but Oliver suggested that the brief disclaimers are insufficient.

The Good Things Utah host that day, Surae Chin, is no ordinary ad rep. She is also ABC 4’s chief medical correspondent. Because of her medical expertise — something directly pertinent to the blanket being advertised — Chin lent a confusing credence to the advertisement.

Or, perhaps hosting the segment detracted from her own credibility. Are viewers to merely trust that her expert insights on hard news are more rigorous than the uncritical, scam-like interview she conducted at the request of an advertiser?

ABC 4 was not the only butt of Oliver’s prank-gone-experiment. Two other news channels, one in Denver and the other in Austin, also aired spots featuring interviews with Hernandez about the fake product.

ABC 4 wasn’t even the only channel in Utah that Oliver skewered. He also undressed KUTV for paid content that it aired years ago. Oliver highlighted a segment that was part of a series of approximately 1,700 for which its parent company Sinclair Broadcasting paid $13.3 million in fines to the FCC.

Sinclair paid the fines because its channels did not properly label the paid content as advertising. In the egregious example Oliver picked out, a news anchor for KUTV punctuated one of the paid segments with a sign-off that suggested it was a news report, not an advertisement: “In Salt Lake City Utah, this is Mark Koelbel reporting.”

A larger picture

Oliver is in the business of video broadcast. Were he instead a writer or radio host, he could have conducted similar experiments, and my guess is that the results would be similar.

There are problems unique to cable news, as Oliver highlighted, but there are also larger forces at play. One of them is that the economics of local news are downright ugly, and that affects much more than just the broadcasts on statewide channels.

Local news faces a problem that CNN, The New York Times, and NPR do not face. Those outlets are playing in a totally different sandbox than ABC 4 and KUTV, and there’s an even smaller sandbox for The Times-Independent, The Moab Sun News, KZMU, and The Canyon Country Zephyr. (Yes, the Zephyr is still publishing.)

National outlets have the fortune of reporting for the whole country, usually even the whole wide world. They have national and international audiences. The great power comes with great responsibility, of course, but in business terms, this is a great exploit.

That’s because there is an international audience for U.S. politics, science, and culture. People in every country across the world care about the U.S. just like people in every country care about China and Europe. It’s a ton of people willing to pay for a subscription and a lot of attention for an advertiser to capture.

Who is interested in Grand County’s housing crisis? Of them, how many are willing to pay for a subscription to a local outlet? That would be me, you, our neighbors, and the precious few people who invest in Moab politics despite living elsewhere.

In business terms, that’s a small market. Every local news outlet is deep into the weeds of important state and local politics, but the small audience for that reporting barely (or hardly) supports the labor the reporting requires.

That small audience size makes the business model hard to pencil out. The necessity gives birth to invention, and sometimes it turns out great. In 2019, The Salt Lake Tribune became the first legacy newspaper to go nonprofit. Local news collaboratives share resources across small newsrooms nationwide. Innovations in community engagement abound.

Other times, it turns out bad, and ABC 4 airs “sponsored content” about a fake product based on fake science, sponsored by a guy pulling a prank. Worse, Oliver said his staff only needed to pay $1,750 for the segment.

Local news is a rough business. There are whole books on the subject. That’s why I’m somewhat sympathetic to the plight of local broadcasters like ABC 4, and I think anyone who understands their position is.

But, at the end of the day, the local news struggle is not an excuse to water down the firewall between the newsroom and the marketing team. At a certain point, it hurts the integrity and credibility of the core product: the reporting.

Anyway, it’s 1 a.m. I’m going to bed.