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.