San Diego It's all in the eye of the beholder. San Diego public relations representative Vicki Garcia regards her client's plan to perform surgery on the Internet as a "news event -- because it's never been done before." Her client, San Diego ophthalmologist Dr. Forrest P. Murphy, is scheduled to correct a patient's vision via the much-talked-about Lasik laser treatment at 3:00 p.m. Tuesday, February 8. NBC's San Diego affiliate, KNSD Channel 7/39, plans to broadcast the surgery live on its website, www.nbc739.com, just before its 4:00 p.m. daily Internet news program. "The operation will be recorded, filmed, and running on the website in real time," Garcia said. "It's breaking new territory in relation to television and the Web."
Channel 7/39's new president and general manager Phyllis Schwartz views the so-called webcast differently. "It's absolutely not a news product. It's clearly a commercial. The doctor is paying for time. When you see the webcast, it will clearly say that it's an advertisement." Schwartz said the station has no plans to report Dr. Murphy's eye surgery -- probably the first live webcast of its kind in the San Diego area -- as a news story. "We don't blur the lines between the news product and the sales product on the television news, and we don't do it on the Web. Lots of people do this kind of surgery."
Dr. Michael Real, director of San Diego State University's School of Communications, views Dr. Murphy's upcoming online surgery as the Internet's version of an "infomercial." Anyone with a camera linked to a personal website can create a webcast, Real said, noting he's been to parties where hosts and guests film the festivities in such a way. "What's different about this is the doctor is using the station's news website to present information. Whether the viewer is confused will depend on how it's packaged," Dr. Real said. "Will they flash on the screen that it's an advertisement or will they hold that sign on during the entire operation?"
Schwartz is adamant that an identifier stating Dr. Murphy is paying for an ad will appear for the duration of the surgery. But she acknowledged some people might have mistaken the website's teaser for "LIVE Lasik Eye Surgery Webcast" for news because of its proximity to other news items. "I can see on at least one page, it's not as clear. In the way it was placed, it could confuse a viewer," Schwartz said late Friday afternoon. "We're going to reconfigure it so it's very, very clear."
On the station's website "home" page Friday evening, the small square box promoting Dr. Murphy -- without mentioning his name -- flashed the words "LIVE Lasik Eye Surgery Webcast" intermittently with "FREE registration." The box was wedged between two news items -- "School test scores" and "Mayor's area code poll" under a column marked "As seen on TV!" To the right of Dr. Murphy's box, another box promoted KNSD 7/39's "Live News Webcast," the station's daily 4:00 p.m. Internet news show. To the left of Dr. Murphy's box appeared the words "complete story," with an arrow pointing toward the box, but clicking on those words brought an unrelated news story to the screen.
The station's website "news" page Friday evening carried a banner at the top reminding viewers, "Don't Miss LIVE Lasik Eye Surgery Webcast." The list of news, however, carried no mention of the operation, which -- in correcting nearsightedness, farsightedness, and astigmatisms -- can eliminate the need for glasses. Schwartz said that, by now, most people who peruse the Internet know that banners are advertisements.
Clicking on the banner or the box labeled "LIVE Lasik Eye Surgery" on Friday evening brought Dr. Murphy's e-mail registration form to the screen. The words "Paid Advertisement" led that particular webpage. From there, viewers could click to an information page entitled "Most Commonly Asked Questions and Answers for Lasik Patients." There, viewers learn the procedure costs $2100 per eye on average nationwide.
After typing the word "eye" in the website's "search" box Friday evening, a list of 39 documents appeared. Of those, 36 were tagged "News Archives." Three documents were titled "LIVE Lasik Eye Surgery webcast with Dr. Forrest Murphy." After typing the word "lasik" in the search box, a list of only three documents appeared; all pertained to Dr. Murphy's webcast.
Regardless of any ambiguities on Channel 7/39's website, "The message still stands. This is not a news project. This is a sales deal," Schwartz said, referring to Dr. Murphy's webcast. "The name of the game is trying to get people to advertise on the Web. It's a $1 billion industry."
Neither Schwartz nor Garcia would say how much Dr. Murphy is paying for the webcast. However, the project is a collaborative effort between the ophthalmologist and Channel 7/39's sales force, which is dispatching its own camera crew to film the operation. The news crew is not involved, Schwartz said, nor will the surgery appear on television.
"Nothing is free on the Web. This is a very expensive thing to put together," Garcia said. The station's sales team is responsible for promoting the webcast before February 8, she said, and Dr. Murphy is paying for television advertisements for two weeks afterward.
In addition, the patient to undergo the excimer laser to improve his vision, Kevin Dean, will also help broadcast the event. As the morning show producer of KYXY-FM radio station, Dean will talk on the air about Lasik eye surgery the week before and the week after his operation, Garcia said. "He'll do ad libs," she said. "There is no script."
Distinguishing between news and commercial events has become more difficult, communications professor Dr. Real said. "Particularly in the last decade, the lines have been blurred much more between what television presents as news and what they have an interest in," he said, noting that a television news program might cover a fundraising marathon it sponsors or interview an actor who's appearing in a movie to be released that day. Likewise, he said, presenting information on the Internet may result in some similar blurring.