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Launch of advertainment assailed by Twin Cities critics

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Roxane Battle, who has co-hosted the soon-to-be cancelled KARE 11 Today show for five years, doesn't like the format change, but she understands why her station is switching to a talk show that's pure advertising. (MPR Photo/Marisa Helms)
Technical innovations like TiVO and the Internet are undermining television ad revenues. News media giant Gannett, the owner of KARE 11, has an answer. The company is bringing a hybrid format called "advertainment" to several of its stations nationwide, including KARE 11 in the Twin Cities.

Golden Valley, Minn. — Critics and ethicists have long denounced "happy talk" morning shows for blurring the line between news, entertainment, and commerce. Now, the "infomercial" has hatched offspring -- advertainment.

This spring KARE will be the first in the nation to convert its long-running morning news show into a long-running commercial, called "Showcase Minnesota." You'll see anchor hosts sitting in comfy chairs, with guests snuggled next to them, to talk up the latest in food, fashion and gadgets.

Guests will pay to be on the new show and the anchors will act like inquisitive hucksters.

"It's the reality of the business that is in a volatile state of change and fluctuation," says Roxane Battle, who has co-hosted the soon-to-be cancelled KARE 11 Today show for five years. She doesn't like the format change, but she understands why her station is switching to a talk show that's pure advertising.

"Revenue," she says. "It's no secret. Eyeballs are evaporating from television screens. They're going to the Internet, and that's affecting the bottom line."

Battle says she hasn't decided yet whether she'll host the new program. If she does, she would need to leave the news department. Her co-host, Pat Evans, is apparently leaning toward staying in the newsroom.

Media giant Gannett owns KARE along with 20 other TV stations around the country. Fifteen months ago its Denver station, KUSA, rolled out a new program called "Colorado and Company."

KARE's "Showcase Minnesota" will be modeled after the Colorado show. KUSA's show has six segments which sell for a minimum $2,100 each.

"It really has become a successful vehicle for a lot of clients, because they do get a minimum five minutes to talk about themselves," according to Dreux DeMack, the executive producer of the show. "Basically, they drive the content."

DeMack says his show surpassed its 12-month revenue projection by 40 percent. But, he also says it never pretended to be a news program.

That's where KARE 11 breaks new ground, by converting a curent news show into an advertainment program -- and raises new questions.

Neither Gannett nor KARE 11 management agreed to be interviewed for this story. But Jane Kirtley, a media ethicist at the University of Minnesota, has plenty to say.

"Viewers expect, and have the right to expect, that what they're going to be seeing in that slot is not just a series of paid advertisements masquerading as programming, but is programming that has been vetted by KARE and that is something more than just sold to the highest bidder," Kirtley says.

Interestingly, the same concern has been raised by some of those potential bidders.

Doug Spong heads up the public relations division of national advertising firm Carmichael Lynch, based in Minneapolis. Harley Davidson is among the firm's clients. Spong says he probably would not recommend clients buy time on KARE 11's forthcoming advertainment show. He says it undercuts their credibility on real news shows.

"What they have to say in terms of the product ... is typically newsworthy enough, or of interest, that we don't have to pay for that segment to be on there, we're invited on," Spong says.

Defenders of advertainment, like Colorado and Company's DeMack, say advertainment shows follow all FCC rules and clearly indicate when a segment is paid for.

There may be a market for advertainment.

"It's a really good way for small business owners to make a foray into television, whereas previously they may not have been able to afford to do that," says Amy Mozey of Marketing Midwest, a Twin Cities media buying agency.

KARE 11 launched the new format a few days ago with "Holiday Showcase Minnesota." The full show begins in late March.