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.
On Channel 7/39's website, a box called "Save Our Wetlands" is linked to one of the station's nonprofit causes. By clicking on the box, viewers reach a page with the headline," NBC 7/39 is proud to support the Federal Duck Stamp Program of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service." Viewers can watch video clips about the government program and San Diego's wetlands. The webpage continues, "For just $30, you can save 1/10th of an acre of precious wetlands and receive a certificate with a collectable duck stamp. Order below..."
Real said he challenges his students to know the source of information they obtain from websites. "Students will quote things from the Internet. It can be rumors, guesses, pure fiction. Before, you knew a lot about the credibility of the source. If it was the Los Angeles Times, that meant one thing. If it was the National 2, that meant another." With its variety and seemingly endless content, the Internet is a "phenomenal" communications outlet, Real said, but viewers must be alert to the information's origins.
The Internet can be convenient, too. When Dr. Murphy wasn't available for an interview Friday, his staff and publicist suggested getting information from his website, www.doctormurphy.com. While the home page lists five medical organizations of which he is a member and identifies him as "a clinical instructor with UCSD Medical Centers," it didn't mention where he attended college or where he has practiced ophthalmology. Garcia tracked down Dr. Murphy during the weekend to find out he was an undergraduate at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and got his medical degree from the University of Kansas Medical Center. Dr. Murphy has been an ophthalmologist in San Diego since 1987, Garcia said, and before that he practiced two years in San Francisco and three years in emergency medicine.
Dr. Murphy's "testimonials" webpage carries photographs and glowing comments from five patients. However, they are identified by first name only. His so-called celebrity clients include several disc jockeys, Garcia said, and Channel 7/39's meteorologist Joe Lizura and anchor Artie Ojeda. Six months after his surgery, Lizura participated in one of Dr. Murphy's infomercials, Lizura said, because the procedure changed his life. "I had my surgery back in 1998. I used to wear contacts and glasses, and now I don't have to. It's great." About a dozen of his coworkers have undergone laser surgery to correct their vision, Lizura said, but many people have gone to different doctors. Lizura and Schwartz each stressed that Dr. Murphy's treatment of some of Channel 7/39's news staff did not result in the webcast. "The business agreement between Joe Lizura and Dr. Murphy is a totally separate issue," Schwartz said. Lizura said he didn't learn about the webcast until recently. "I don't know whether Dr. Murphy contacted the sales department or the sales department contacted him."
Like Schwartz, Lizura acknowledged that differentiating between news and promotions isn't always so easy. After clicking through Channel 7/39's website Friday evening, Lizura concluded that boxes carrying NBC's logo almost always referred to news, while boxes without the logo did not. But such confusion isn't limited to websites or television broadcasts, Lizura said. "Sometimes I'll be reading through Business Week magazine, and there'll be information about a company that's all positive and wonderful. I'll think, 'What's going on here?' Then I'll realize I'm reading an advertising section."