controversial issue of public importance

In the last few weeks, I’ve been asked several times by broadcasters whether an ad should be considered an "issue ad."   Usually, the ad in question deals with some sort of faintly controversial issue, and the broadcaster seems torn about how to classify the ad.   In many ways, the answer is almost irrelevant as, other than some public file obligations, whether or not an ad is an issue ad has little practical significance.  Issue ads are not entitled to special rates – lowest unit rates are reserved for candidate ads.  They are not entitled to special placement in broadcast schedules.  As there is no Fairness Doctrine, there isn’t even a requirement that you treat both sides of an issue in the same fashion (except perhaps, where a Fairness obligation may still arise if the issue being discussed is a candidate in an election, when the last remnant of Fairness, the Zapple Doctrine, has not officially been declared dead).  So why worry about whether or not something is an issue ad?

The principal reason is the public file. Commission rules require that the sponsor of an issue ad be identified in a broadcaster’s public file, along with the sponsor’s principal officers or directors.  This is required for any ad dealing with a controversial issue of public importance.  The ad does not need to deal with a political issue, or one to be considered by a government body.  Any controversial issue of public importance merits the public file treatment.  For ads dealing with a "federal issue", one to be considered by the US Congress, any Federal administrative agency or any other branch of the United States government, additional disclosures need to be made in the file (which we have listed before), setting out all the information that you would need to provide with respect to a candidate ad – including the price paid for the ad and the schedule on which the ad will run. 


Continue Reading So Just What is an “Issue Ad” and Why Should I Care?

A recent stir was created when a Midwestern television company was reported to have signed a contract with a state government agency, promising to market the agency and its programs throughout the state.  This promotion was to include a segment in the company’s televised news promoting the effects of the work of the agency.  Questions were immediately raised about whether this was prohibited by FCC rules.  But, when the news pieces ran, the company was very careful to state after these segments that they were sponsored by the station and the state agency.  As the FCC has no rules about what can be included in the "news" (and probably could not consistent with the First Amendment), the only real issue was one of sponsorship identification.  As the licensee did here, if the sponsor of the story is identified, making clear to the public who was attempting to persuade them on the issue addressed, there should be no FCC issues.

This is different from the issues that have arisen previously at the FCC, where there have been fines levied against television stations and cable systems for airing programming that was sponsored, but for which no sponsorship identification was provided (see our posts here and here).  This includes the video news release or VNR issues, where the FCC has fined stations for using news actualities provided by groups with a financial interest in the issue that was being addressed, but without identifying the fact that the material was provided by the interested parties.  Where a program addresses a controversial issue of public importance, the disclosure rules are more strict, requiring that the station not only disclose that it received money to air a story – but to also disclose anything that it got from the interested party – including tapes or scripts.


Continue Reading Selling Stories In a Broadcast Station’s News Programs – Remember the Sponsorship Identification

According to numerous press articles, including this one in Multichannel News, the FCC has begun an investigation into several commentators on TV news programs to see if they were receiving payments or other consideration for presenting a particular viewpoint on military issues on which they were interviewed.  According to press reports, the FCC has

The FCC has taken the unusual step of issuing a Notice of Apparent Liability, i.e. an announcement that it has fined a broadcaster, against two TV station owners for failing to provide a sponsorship identification for political material sponsored by another Federal agency–the Department of Education ("DOE").  The proposed fines for these two broadcasters totaled over $70,000.  In connection with the same broadcasts, the Commission also issued a citation against the producer of the programs for failing to include a disclosure of the sponsor of the programs, warning that company that it would be fined if it were to engage in such activity in the future, even though the entity was not an FCC licensee.  These actions demonstrate the concern of the Commission over programs that attempt to influence the public, particularly those dealing with controversial issues of public importance, where those who have paid to do the convincing are not evident to the public.

These cases all stem from programs associated with conservative political commentator Armstrong Williams, who was paid by DOE to promote the controversial No Child Left Behind Act ("NCLBA") supported by the current administration.  He did so on two television programs:  his own show, titled "The Right Side with Armstrong Williams" and on "America’s Black Forum," where he appeared as a guest.  These shows were aired by various television stations without any sponsorship identification to indicate that Williams was paid by DOE to promote NCLBA on the air.

In one case, the television broadcaster received $100 per broadcast for airing Right Side, but failed to reveal that it had received any consideration.  The broadcaster claimed that the consideration received was "nominal," which is generally an exception to the sponsorship ID requirement.  However, the FCC noted that the exception for "nominal" consideration applies only to "service or property" and not to "money," holding that receipt of any money, even if only a small sum, triggers the requirement for sponsorship identification.


Continue Reading FCC Proposes Fines for Political Sponsorship ID Violations