RTNDA urges FCC to wrap probe of VNRs


WASHINGTON -- Newscasters are urging federal regulators to end their probe of the way TV stations use so-called video news releases, arguing that, among other things, the FCC is incorrectly applying its sponsorship rules.

In a filing Friday, the Radio-Television News Directors Assn. contended that the commission's investigation of the VNR use is wrong because the FCC's sponsorship rules do not apply when there is no compensation for the material, the study it is basing its investigation on is flawed and that the action is having a "chilling effect" on broadcasters' free speech rights.

In July, the commission issued 42 formal letters of inquiry to holders of 77 broadcast licenses in its effort to see if the stations violated sponsorship rules that require identification of material used by the stations.

In April, the nonprofit groups Free Press and the Center for Media and Democracy filed a complaint with the FCC after the center conducted a study that found unattributed video news releases had been aired at 77 stations. It said owners of those stations included Sinclair Broadcast Group, News Corp.'s Fox Television Stations, Clear Channel Communications, Tribune Co. and Viacom/CBS. The nonprofits said the practice "has infiltrated broadcast news programming across the country."

The RTNDA contends that the study was flawed, telling the commission that its examination of the material found that more than half of the allegations were unsupported by accompanying video, the stations made the appropriate disclosures or used the material in stories critical of the companies or products behind the VNRs.

Free Press campaign director Tim Karr said the study was a valid one and that using what in effect is corporate propaganda violates payola laws.

"We stand 100% behind the Center for Media in Democracy study, which clearly showed there are violations of the nondisclosure statutes," Karr said. "They're simply trying to cloak themselves in the First Amendment."

Investigation of the use of VNRs grew out of the commission's examination of possible violation of the FCC's anti-payola rules by conservative commentator Armstrong Williams and the Department of Education. The commission also is investigating possible payola violations by four of the major radio broadcast companies.

Under the payola laws, the performer is required to tell whether he received compensation, and the broadcaster is required to make an effort to determine whether there was any compensation for airing programming.