public broadcasting advertising

Last week, the FCC reached a consent decree with a noncommercial broadcaster, where the broadcaster paid an $8000 penalty for, among other things, running underwriting spots that were too promotional. While the consent decree and its implementing order provide no details on the underwriting violations by the broadcaster, we can assume that the broadcaster ran spots that somehow crossed the line – giving price information about a sponsor’s products, or including a call to action suggesting that listeners somehow patronize the sponsor, or making qualitative claims about the sponsor or its products or services. We have written about similar violations many times (see, for instance, our articles here, here, here, here and here) and I have conducted seminars for numerous noncommercial broadcasting organizations talking about specifics as to what is permitted in underwriting acknowledgements and what will get a noncommercial station into trouble (see for instance, the presentations mentioned here and here). Obviously, it is important that noncommercial stations pay attention to these restrictions. But, last week, I received a question that indicated that not all noncommercial stations realize that, while their ability to promote a commercial enterprise is limited, these same restrictions do not apply to on-air spots for other nonprofit organizations.

About 35 years ago, Congress changed the provisions of the Communications Act to redefine what a noncommercial station can and cannot do. Noncommercial stations obviously cannot run commercials. But the language of the statute makes clear that commercials are promotional announcements for profit businesses. In looking at that statutory change, after much discussion, the FCC concluded that the restrictions on underwriting announcements that apply to these noncommercial businesses do not apply to promotional announcements for nonprofit entities.
Continue Reading Remember FCC Rules on Underwriting Limitations – And that They Don’t Apply to Spots Bought By Nonprofit Entities

Last week, the FCC issued several fines to noncommercial broadcasters who had underwriting announcements that sounded too commercial.  In these decisions, the Commission found that the stations had broadcast promotional announcements for commercial businesses – and those announcements did not conform to the FCC’s rules requiring that announcements acknowledging contributions to noncommercial stations cannot contain qualitative claims about the sponsor, nor can they contain "calls to action" suggesting that listeners patronize the sponsor.  These cases also raised an interesting issue in that the promotional announcements that exceeded FCC limits were not in programming produced by the station, but instead in programs produced by outside parties who received the compensation that led to the announcement.  The FCC found that there was liability for the spots that were too promotional even though the station itself had received no compensation for the airing of that spot.

The rules for underwriting announcements on noncommercial stations (including Low Power FM stations) limit these announcements to ones that identify sponsors, but do not overtly promote their businesses.   Underwriting announcements can identify the sponsor, say what the business of the sponsor is, and give a location (seemingly including a website address).  But the announcements cannot do anything that would specifically encourage patronage of the sponsor’s business.  They cannot contain a "call to action" (e.g. they cannot say "visit Joe’s hardware on Main Street" or "Call Mary’s Insurance Company today").  They cannot contain any qualitative statements about the sponsors products or services (e.g. they cannot say "delicious food", "the best service", or "a friendly and knowledgeable staff" ).  The underwriting announcements cannot contain price information about products sold by a sponsor.  In one of the cases decided this week, the Commission also stated that the announcements cannot be too long, as that in and of itself makes the spot seem overly promotional and was more than was necessary to identify the sponsor and the business that the sponsor was in.  The spot that was criticized was approximately 60 seconds in length. 


Continue Reading FCC Fines for Noncommercial Stations Having Underwriting Announcements That Were Too Commercial – Even Where the Station Received No Money