Unbeknownst to viewers, a lot of stars are paid big bucks by big drug firms to talk about their medical problems - even when they don't mention pharmaceutical products by name.
Much to the chagrin of the major television networks, their news shows have lately become a marketing platform of choice for the health care industry. And as the practice gets exposed, television executives are promising a crackdown on stealth endorsements that are turning venerable news programs like NBC's "Today" and ABC's "Good Morning America" into drug company infomercials.
It's also lucrative for entertainers. Celebrities can make from tens of thousands of dollars to six figures a day for their role in industry-sponsored "public awareness campaigns," said one Hollywood agent whose company arranges such deals.
The networks say they were taken by surprise.
"We never had a policy about this because it never existed before," said CBS News executive Marcy McGinnis. "We're finding out that these drug companies are very clever and are getting people to hype their drugs or hype their procedures."
ABC News spokeswoman Lisa Finkel said, "This is a relatively new phenomenon that we've become acutely aware of."
Executives for CBS, ABC, NBC and CNN say their producers are now exercising greater care to unearth corporate ties of celebrity guests who want discuss health issues and to either disclose those ties on air or kill the interview altogether.
Drug companies and their marketing companies deny trying to conceal connections with the celebrities they pay for promotional work. And they scoff at network assertions that broadcasters were largely unaware of celebrity relationships to the medical industry until The New York Times published an expose of the phenomenon earlier this month.
"I'm snickering at that statement," said Barry Greenberg, whose Los Angeles-based company, Celebrity Connection, links stars with advertising agencies, nonprofit groups and corporations, including drug companies. "It's the publicists for the pharmaceutical companies who are making the pitches to these television programs."
Cinny Kennard, a former CBS News correspondent who teaches journalism at the University of Southern California, said news programs in particular have a duty to guard against airing what amounts to paid celebrity endorsements masquerading as unpaid testimonials.
"There's something fundamentally wrong with lining your pockets with money and coming out and speaking about something like this," Kennard said. "There's a fakeness about it."
Examples abound in recent months.
Ann Wilson, who with her guitar-playing sister Nancy was the lead singer for the 1970s-'80s rock band Heart, appeared in a taped segment aired on the CBS News "The Early Show" in July to tout the benefits of a weight-loss device, the Lap-Band, which surgeons placed around her stomach to restrict food intake.
Wilson is paid to speak publicly about Lap-Band surgery by Spotlight Health, a Los Angeles marketing and public relations company that in turn is paid by Inamed, maker of the Lap-Band.
Wilson's ties to Spotlight and Inamed were not disclosed in the broadcast because CBS was not aware of them, McGinnis said. But CBS News plans to make that clear when it airs more of Wilson's interview for an upcoming segment on "48 Hours."
A spokeswoman for Spotlight Health, Jennifer D'Andrea, said Wilson and celebrities like her were motivated by the desire to help others, rather than by money.
Some paid promotions are less overt. During recent appearances on ABC's "Good Morning America" and on CNN, actress Kathleen Turner talked about her own struggle with rheumatoid arthritis. Although she did not mention any companies or products by name, she did refer viewers to a Web site, www.ra-access.com, that is sponsored by Amgen Inc. and Wyeth, two companies that market the arthritis drug Enbrel.
Turner is paid by both Amgen and Wyeth for her involvement in the companies' "unbranded campaign to educate people who are stricken with this disease," Wyeth spokesman Doug Petkus said. He said material supplied to media outlets that interviewed Turner made clear the campaign was sponsored by drug companies.
Likewise, actress Lauren Bacall appeared on NBC's "Today" show to discuss the eye disease macular degeneration, which she said left a good friend partially blind, and mentioned the drug treatment called Visudyne. But neither Bacall nor NBC ever mentioned that she was a paid by Visudyne maker Novartis Ophthalmics Inc.
"When it was brought to our attention after the fact, we realized we could have handled it differently," said "Today" show spokeswoman Allison Gollust.
"It seems over the past six to nine months, our producers have seen a lot more of those types of pitches come across their desk, so we have become much more vigilant and have turned some segments down if we felt like it was merely a commercial for a drug company."
She said NBC recently canceled an appearance by actor Rob Lowe, a co-star of "The West Wing," who is paid by Amgen to promote awareness of neutropenia, a side effect of chemotherapy that is treated by the Amgen-produced drug Neulasta.
Former Olympic skating turned ABC Sports commentator, Peggy Fleming, managed to get in a plug for the drug Lipitor, which she takes to control cholesterol, during an appearance on "Good Morning America." Although she told the audience she was working for a drug company on a "Go for the Gold" campaign, she did not mention the company was Pfizer, the maker of Lipitor.
The show's co-host, Elizabeth Vargas, however, had been briefed by producers ahead of time and quickly added there are "plenty of drugs that you can take besides Lipitor," and she gave the names of two of them.