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Press Releases Enter the Age of Video

August 20, 1990

BLOOMFIELD, Conn. (AP) _ When Spalding Sports Worldwide wanted to entice television journalists into doing stories on its new Top-Flite golf ball, the company knew sending out a few typed pages and a photograph or two wouldn’t be enough.

So Spalding put out a video, joining the growing number of companies that are turning to ″video news releases″ to promote their products.

Known as ″VNRs,″ the 90-second spots have become an electronic alternative to standard news releases.

Spalding’s VNR cost just $10,000 to make - compared to the hundreds of thousands of dollars a commercial can cost - but ended up reaching more than six million viewers, according to Steven Shaw, president of Visual Concepts Media Inc., a Bloomfield company that produced and distributed the video.

First, the video was distributed to local television stations across the country. Then Spalding’s new golf ball made the national airwaves when, after seeing the video, the ″Today″ show did its own story on game-improvement equipment.

″It was an opportunity for us to be associated with a tremendous growth in the game of golf without being blatantly commercial,″ said J. Greg Sherry, a spokesman for Spalding, based in Chicopee, Mass.

Publicity-hungry corporations have been sending public relations film to local stations since the advent of television in the 1940s.

But VNRs only began to enjoy a boom in popularity in the mid-1980s, when the proliferation of satellite dishes made them easier to distribute and local news shows needed more material to fill longer, one-hour formats.

Most VNRs closely resemble news stories, complete with interviews and narration. The product being hawked is presented, but only as part of what appears as a larger news story.

The Spalding video is presented as a story about how high-tech sporting equipment can improve the performance of weekend athletes.

Professional and weekend golfers were interviewed about what they look for in a golf ball. Greg Norman, without ever endorsing or even mentioning the Top-Flite ball, tells the viewer that the average golfer should simply find a ball he likes and stick with it. But after his interview, the camera zooms in on one of Spalding’s ″Top-Flite Plus II″ balls.

For a cost of between $10,000 and $20,000, a VNR - which typically runs about 90 seconds - can be beamed to newsrooms around the country via satellite.

The use of VNRs remains a controversial topic in the television news industry.

Many news directors question the objectivity of a corporate-produced video and claim to have rigid policies against using them.

″They’re great for the company, but they’re terrible for viewers because they’re biased,″ said Paul Frega, news director of WVIT-TV in New Britain.

Deborah Johnson, assistant news director at WFSB-TV in Hartford, added: ″They’re not useful to us because they are no different than a press release.″

Johnson and Frega acknowledge that their stations sometimes use a small film clip from a VNR for background footage that might be difficult to get on their own. Both news directors cringe, however, when asked if they ever use unedited versions.

″We never, ever use those,″ said Frega. ″I think it’s kind of sad that some stations do.″

Such hostility comes as something of a surprise to those who produce VNRs, who say many stations use them, despite their disclaimers.

″It’s a holier-than-thou attitude,″ said Douglas Brush, executive vice president of D-J Brush Associates, a New York consulting firm specializing in corporate communications.

″News directors do not like to admit they use prepared material,″ Brush said. ″But the fact of the matter is there are cutbacks in the television news industry, and despite what they tell you, many of them welcome well- prepared video releases.″

Medialink, a New York-based public relations firm that is the nation’s largest distributor of video news releases, commissioned a poll in February to find out whether news stations were using VNRs.

James Gold, Medialink’s managing editor, said 78 percent of news directors and producers who responded to the Nielsen poll said they used edited material from a video news release an average of once a week.

Gold, whose company distributed 1,200 VNRs last year, said most of the videos provided television stations with story ideas they later developed themselves. Usually, only a small portion of the video news release ends up being used in the news broadcasts.

″If used responsibly, there’s nothing wrong with them,″ said Gold.

At Visual Concepts, Shaw and partner Ric Serrenho, both former staffers for WTNH-TV in New Haven, say they are amazed when local stations claim they never use VNRs.

″I really take offense to that,″ says Serrenho. ″We’re not forcing anybody to take this product. It has to be a legitimate news story.″

Industry analysts, however, say most television news stations still view VNRs with skepticism because of their inherent public relations slant.

″These people are not stupid. They know a commercial when they see it,″ said James Kaminsky, editor of Corporate Video Decisions, a magazine that covers the corporate video industry.

Despite the war of words between news directors and video producers, VNRs are becoming a lucrative cottage industry within the corporate video industry.

Today, VNRs account for anywhere from $60 to $100 million of the corporate video industry, according to industry estimates. Medialink’s survey showed that last year, approximately 3,500 VNRs were produced across the country.

″It’s big and getting bigger,″ Kaminsky said.

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