The final report on Sunday's NBC Nightly News (1/29/12) was a two-minute "news story" about fast food restaurants that are now staying open later to accommodate the schedules of their customers. First of all, there is no definition of "news" that would include this ridiculous story. But, of course, the producers weren't interested in presenting a news story. Rather, their intent was to promote some of NBC's best fast food sponsors. The story began with ad clips from Taco Bell and Wendy's--both of which are regular advertisers on some of the many Comcast/NBC Universal networks. But the rest of the story focused on McDonald's. This story contained more than a minute's worth of gratuitous McDonald's footage--interiors, exteriors, franchise owners, customers, workers, food--and even included an extended shot of correspondent Mike Taibbi standing in front of a McDonald's in a way that clearly displayed the McDonald's name and logo. And just to make sure we didn't miss the point, Taibbi then told us that, "McDonald's now has 40% of its restaurants open 24 hours--up from 30% seven years ago." That statement--and the entire report--sounded suspiciously like a commercial. Obviously, the Nightly News producers' goal in running this story was to inform the viewers that McDonald's has new extended hours so we should rush out later and get some of those delicious Big Macs, Quarter Pounders and fries.
Without a doubt, one of the main jobs of Brian Williams, his producers and correspondents is to use Nightly News to plug NBC sponsors. This happens over and over and over again. GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, Cheerios, Bayer, Walmart, Frito-Lay, Chrysler, Chevy...the list goes on and on. But no company gets more on-air plugs from Nightly News than McDonald's. Brian Williams and his producers and correspondents have a long track record of promoting and endorsing McDonald's on Nightly News. This isn't surprising. With the recent acquisition of NBC Universal by Comcast, the new Comcast/NBC Universal mega-conglomerate controls more than twenty national or regional networks and cable channels. In addition to NBC, MSNBC and CNBC, they own Bravo, Chiller, Oxygen, Sleuth, Syfy, Telemundo, Mun2, The Weather Channel, USA, E!, SportsNet New York, Exercise TV, G4, The Golf Channel, PBS Kids Sprout, The Style Network, Versus and New England Cable News. And those are only the ones I know about. I can only imagine how much money McDonald's spends each year advertising on all these Comcast/NBC stations. Is it $50 million? $75 million? $100 million? Who knows. Let's just say it's a lot. So with McDonald's spending all this money with Comcast/NBC, it makes perfect sense that Brian Williams would act as an on-air spokesperson for McDonald's. It's obvious that Brian and the Nightly News producers work closely with the NBC News ad sales department and the McDonald's ad and promotions agencies to find the most advantageous ways to feature the Golden Arches on their broadcast. It's also obvious that the McDonald's press releases read by Brian, Lester Holt and the NBC correspondents on the air are actually part of paid commercial packages purchased by McDonald's. Instead of just buying commercials, McDonald's and other companies are encouraged by NBC to buy combination ad packages (not unlike McDonald's combination meals) that include commercials as well as glowing, fawning news stories about their products. After all, hearing Brian Williams enthusiastically plug McDonald's french fries carries a lot more weight than a plain old commercial.
On the 11/17/11 Nightly News, right in the middle of a story about Congress's decision to categorize pizza as a vegetable, correspondent/shill Anne Thompson took a ten-second break to read a McDonald's commercial. With a huge McDonald's logo next to her, Thompson told us that, "McDonald's got the message--reducing french fries and adding fruit to its happy meals." This had absolutely nothing to do with the story about pizza being a vegetable--it was just another opportunity for a Nightly News correspondent to toss in a plug the Golden Arches. It's also interesting to note that right before Thompson read her McDonald's commercial, she said, "First Lady Michelle Obama is on a mission to change that--urging America's kids to exercise and encouraging healthy eating." Thompson's statement was accompanied by video of Mrs. Obama. This is no accident. Showing Mrs. Obama right before a McDonald's product placement is actually a very calculated and crafty way for the Nightly News producers to imply that Mrs. Obama endorses McDonald's. This has happened before. On the 7/26/11 Nightly News, Brian Williams read this 30-second promo for McDonald's: "McDonald's said today that it's taking steps to make Happy Meals healthier. The company is cutting the size of the french fry portion in half for starters and adding apple slices to every meal. The new meals will have about 20% fewer calories--coming in at under 600 calories total. First Lady Michelle Obama, who campaigns, of course, for better nutrition, put out a statement today calling this a good step." Again--it was clearly the intent of Brian and his producers to imply that Mrs. Obama was endorsing McDonald's. (As Brian read this, the McDonald's logo was onscreen for the entire thirty seconds, along with the words "Healthy Choices" and a picture of a Happy Meal.)
Here are some other examples of how McDonald's has been aggressively promoted (or protected from negative publicity) on Nightly News:
5/18/11--Brian personally defended McDonald's against criticism from parenting organizations and nutritional advocacy groups that accused McDonald's of unfairly using the Ronald McDonald character to attract children to their high sodium, high cholesterol, high fat food. In the story, Brian said that this criticism "seems a little harsh". So much for anchor neutrality.
5/9/11--Brian took thirty seconds to tell us that McDonald's is spending more than $1 billion to upgrade their restaurants. "Look for wooden tables, muted colors and faux leather seats coming soon to a Mac's near you. And you can get fries with that." Is it just me, or is that a commercial?
3/8/11--During a story promoting Subway Sandwich Shops (you didn't think McDonald's was the only fast food restaurant Brian promoted, did you?) as now having more U.S. outlets than McDonald's, Brian was quick to tell us that McDonald's still makes more money annually--$24 billion to $15 billion.
12/7/10--A story about how San Francisco is banning toys that come with children's fast food meals began with a cute segment about a woman who collects Happy Meal toys. The rest of this 2:30 "news story" (which was really just a commercial for McDonald's) contained clips of actual McDonald's commercials and non-stop footage of the McDonald's logo, restaurants and food.
11/8/10--The lead story on The CBS Evening News was a study released by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity detailing the inappropriate ways that fast food chains market their unhealthy food to children. Nightly News did not report this story--obviously as a courtesy to their pals at McDonald's.
9/3/10--The CBS Evening News reported that Consumer Reports rated 53 different fast food and chain restaurant hamburgers on taste and attractiveness, and McDonald's came in dead last. Needless to say, Nightly News did not report this story, either.
7/2/10--A Nightly News profile of LeBron James included clips from his McDonald's commercials.
6/14/10--Lester Holt gave us the important news that McDonald's will now be offering free Wi-Fi at their restaurants.
2/4/10--While reading a 25 second promotional piece about Heinz Ketchup's exciting new packaging, Brian also threw in a gratuitous plug for McDonald's.
10/22/09--During a piece about women in the workplace, Nightly News spent 75 seconds profiling Jan Fields, the Chief Operating Officer of McDonald's USA. The story gave her ample time to talk about things like McDonald's "world famous fries". Ms. Fields is now the president of McDonald's USA--no doubt thanks in part to her ability to manipulate NBC News into allowing her to plug her greasy burgers and fries.
5/5/09--In what may be the most shameless and blatant plug ever, Nightly News did a two-minute story whose sole purpose was to announce the launch of McDonald's new gourmet coffees to compete with Starbucks. Ann Curry called McDonald's coffee a "delicious brew".
So if anyone thinks that all these plugs for McDonald's are just random and haphazard (as opposed to paid product placements) then there's a bridge across the East River that I'd like to sell you.