Adelstein to FCC: Police VNR use

Urges enforcement of disclosure regs; RTNDA hits back

An FCC commissioner is urging the agency to take a hard line against TV broadcasters that continue to air corporate-produced video news releases without identifying where they came from.

Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said Tuesday that it is time for the agency to enforce its disclosure laws. "When the flock ignores the shepherd, it's time to build a fence," Adelstein said. "Since the industry is patently incapable of self-regulation, it's up to the FCC to enforce our disclosure rules."

Adelstein's comments came after a new study by the nonprofit organizations Center for Media Democracy and Free Press that claims broadcasters continue to ignore the FCC's disclosure rules and air the news releases without attribution.

The report and Adelstein's remarks brought a rebuke from the Radio-Television News Directors Assn., which questioned the report's overall conclusion. "This continued regulatory intrusion into newsroom operations must cease," the RTNDA said.

According to the report, 46 TV stations from Philadelphia to Honolulu aired corporate VNRs — sponsored segments produced to mimic news reports. The report is a follow-up to CMD's April study that named 77 TV stations that had aired VNRs. In August, the FCC launched an investigation into VNR usage, sending letters of inquiry to the owners of all 77 stations named in the earlier report.

CMD said that from April-October it documented 46 stations in 22 states airing at least one of 33 different video news releases.

Of the 54 total VNR broadcasts described in the report, 48 provided no disclosure of the nature or source of the sponsored video. In the six other cases, disclosure was fleeting and often ambiguous, according to CMD's study.

"Not only should the FCC investigation continue, another one should be launched to address the incidents documented in our new report," said Daniel Price, CMD research consultant and co-author of the report. "Television stations and industry groups have proven incapable of addressing the issue themselves."

In April 2005, the commission unanimously reminded the media of its responsibilities to divulge sponsors. At the time, the commission reminded broadcast and cable operators of their obligations to "clearly disclose to members of their audience the nature, source and sponsorship of the material that they are viewing."

If the commission determines after investigation that a licensee has violated sponsorship identification rules, the FCC may impose monetary fines of up to $32,500 per violation and initiate license revocation proceedings against licensees. Section 507 of the Communications Act establishes civil and criminal penalties for violation of disclosure requirements, with the possibility of a fine of as much as $10,000 and up to one year's imprisonment.

Adelstein said he thinks it's time to take the next step.

"Some stations have developed such an ingrained pattern of running VNRs that even a direct investigation by the FCC isn't enough to snap them out of it," he said. "Maybe some have run so many red lights it seems like the normal way to drive. It's time to start handing out citations."

In its statement, RTNDA said that while its guidelines for members call for "appropriate identification of materials received from third-party sources," the FCC's existing rules regarding sponsorship identification "do not apply if stations or their employees have not received consideration for including VNR material in a broadcast, unless the material concerned politics or a controversial issue of public importance."

RTNDA also said that its initial review of the CMD study found that "certain of the allegations regarding VNR use are inaccurate or represent isolated incidents made in error and at variance with station policies."