In a decision released late on Friday, the FCC upheld a $9,000 fine on a noncommercial television operator who broadcast underwriting announcements which, in the opinion of the Commission, were too much like commercials and thus were impermissible on a noncommercial station.  Under the Commission’s policies governing the noncommercial nature of noncommercial stations, it is permissible to air an underwriting announcement acknowledging a commercial entity that makes a financial contribution to the station.  And it is permissible to state the nature of the business, where it is located, and to air the slogan of the company.  What is not permissible is when the underwriting announcement contains "calls to action," qualitative or comparative claims, price information, or other inducements to do business with this particular company.  In this case, the Commission felt that the announcements crossed some or all of these lines.

In the initial Notice of Apparent Liability in this case, released in late 2004, the text of the announcements at issue are set out.  In last week’s order, phrases such as "planning a special occasion?" as the intro line to an announcement about an Ice cream store were deemed to be calls to action, and the description of the ice cream cakes that the store made as "tastefully decorated" were deemed to be qualitative.  Similarly, statements about a real estate company that "we’re all about family" and "we love selling real estate" were deemed to be comparative in nature, trying to distinguish this particular agent from other competitors.  In only one of ten ads, one for a school supply store, did the Commission overturn its previous determination, finding that an announcement for "creative learning materials" was arguably descriptive and not qualitative.

So what is a licensee supposed to take away from this decision?  Basically, keep the ads very straightforward.  "This program is sponsored by XXXXX business, located at YYYYYY, which sells [plain factual description], "[insert business’ slogan here]."  Essentially, the slogan is the only selling point – the remainder of the ad has to be without color to avoid problems.  The Commission will give the licensee the benefit of a doubt in a close case – but it is much easier to argue that it is a close case when the spot sounds like a fairly simple announcement of who is sponsoring a program, instead of like a commercial announcement.  Too much hype and you’re asking for trouble.  So keep it simple and avoid problems.