Oct 30, 2011

competition is fierce among private companies offering the Medicare Advantage managed-care option

Former Tampa Bay anchors return to TV as Medicare insurance pitchmen
By Eric Deggans, Times TV/Media Critic
In Print: Friday, October 28, 2011

For 30 years, Bob Hite helped TV audiences digest the news of the day as one of the Tampa Bay area's most-watched local television newsmen.

But his latest TV job is something new: hosting a half-hour infomercial touting the merits of a Florida insurance company's Medicare Advantage plan.

The onetime anchor, who retired from Tampa NBC affiliate WFLA-Ch. 8 in 2007, plugs his decades of experience as a journalist in the "special broadcast" for Optimum Health Care, a locally based company that administers Medicare benefits.

"As a news anchor and photojournalist, I've spent over 40 years researching and reporting stories I felt were important to improve people's lives," Hite says early in the program. "Nothing is more important than helping people … to better understand the (Medicare) system."

Enrollment for the government health insurance program for seniors and disabled people began this month, and the competition is fierce among private companies offering the Medicare Advantage managed-care option.

Should a journalist, even one who has been retired from local TV news for nearly four years, leverage the credibility he developed as an objective, independent reporter to tout one insurance company for pay?

Hite, 63, sees no problem with his first on-camera infomercial since leaving WFLA. "I think it's clear to anyone what I'm doing; anyone who knows me from my days as a newsman knows I've been retired for years," he said, speaking by telephone from his home in Southwest Colorado. "The only products we take on are products I believe in. And I have to have total script control."

The blurring of lines between advertising and journalism still makes some TV news experts uneasy.

"It is really awkward and uncomfortable," said Deborah Potter, a former CBS and CNN correspondent now serving as executive director for Newslab a training center based in Washington, D.C. "You can't tell (retired) people to pass up an opportunity. But transparency is key; if there's the potential for confusion in the viewers' mind, that's troubling."

Hite isn't alone. Former WTVT-Ch. 13 anchor Frank Robertson, who left the station in 2009 after nearly 21 years, appears in a different ad for Optimum, sitting behind what looks like an anchor desk trading lines with a woman who looks like a co-anchor.

"That's probably why I do get selected for so many spots; they do feel I have some credibility," said Robertson, who also has voiced ads for a local chiropractic practice and a medical security device. "I do feel, once you've established yourself as a commercial spokesperson, you can't go back. You're not the news guy anymore."

The company plans to air Hite's half-hour infomercial about 200 times through early December; Robertson's ad could air up to 500 times, placed in local newscasts when seniors are likely watching, said Joe Vessio, head of sales and marketing for Freedom Health Care and Optimum.

"I don't think they would lend their image or their name to a product they didn't believe in," Vessio said of Hite and Robertson. "That's what I would say to some of the skeptics. If we weren't a credible company, they wouldn't be working with us."

Private health care companies are filling local TV stations and newspapers with ads asking eligible people to allow them to provide their Medicare benefits before enrollment ends Dec. 7.

Experts say the decision is personal and specific, because each company offers different features and perks. A plan that is inexpensive for one consumer, because of the drugs they take, could be costly for a person with different prescriptions.

"All these ads are terribly confusing for people," said Charles Franckle, a retired economist who works as a volunteer counselor through the state-funded SHINE program (Serving Health Insurance Needs of Elders). "All of them are just touting the advantages and none of the disadvantages."

Ren Scott has heard such criticism before. He spent nearly 20 years as a TV anchor in New York, Philadelphia and at WFTS-Ch. 28 in Tampa before founding his own marketing and video production company in Tampa. Now he hires former anchors such as Hite (whom he also represents as an agent), Robertson and former WFTS sports anchor Al Keck to voice commercials and infomercials his company scripts and films.

"I have journalists in my office weekly saying salaries are down, I don't feel stable, what can I do?" said Scott, who developed Hite's infomercial for Optimum.

"The reality is, the news business and a lot of the things they're calling journalism, it's not journalism," added Scott, who touts his company's success in raising funds for charity. "I am doing more good in delivering important messages now than I ever did covering fires and murders."

Hite sees his endorsements as an extension of the behind-the-scenes video work he does through his company Kinship Productions. "Telling stories through moving picture is my hobby, and I've been lucky enough to make a living doing it," he said. "I have these skills I've developed over the years; it's nice to be able to use them."

Eric Deggans can be reached at deggans@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8521. Blog: Tampabay.com/blogs/media. Twitter: @Deggans.