sponsorship acknowledgment

A consent decree entered into by a radio broadcaster, which included a $12,000 "voluntary contribution" to the US Treasury, demonstrates once again the FCC’s concerns about sponsorship identification issues.  The week before last, we wrote about the FCC fine levied on a television broadcaster for not including sufficient sponsorship information when a "video news release" was broadcast on a local television station without disclosing that the video footage had been produced by the automobile company whose products were featured.  The recent FCC Report on the Information Needs of Local Communities (formerly known as the Future of Media report) also focused on the need for more disclosure in connection with sponsored material carried on broadcast stations and other media (see our summary here).  With a long outstanding Rulemaking proceeding on these issues that remains unresolved (see our summary here), the Commission almost appears as if it is setting its policies in these areas through case law rather than through the rulemaking process.

In this most recent "payola" case, a complaint was lodged against a Texas radio station owned by Emmis Broadcasting alleging that the host of one music program was receiving compensation from a local music club, a local record store, and a manager of local bands in exchange for featuring music on the show.  The allegation contended that other local bands could not get their music played on this show without sponsoring Station events hosted by this particular personality.  The Consent Decree does not resolve the question of whether these allegations were true, but instead requires that the licensee make the voluntary contribution, adopt procedures to make sure that Station employees are aware of the requirements of the sponsorship identification rules, and report  to the Commission on a regular basis on the actions taken by the licensee to ensure compliance with the FCC rules.  In addition to general requirements that the Station educate its employees about the sponsorship identification rules, the Consent Decree also contained conditions setting forth rules governing the relationship that station employees could have with record labels, even though the decree makes no mention of any allegations of improper consideration having come from record companies.  These conditions were ones that appear to have come from consent decrees entered into with a number of broadcasters 4 years ago in the last major FCC payola investigation (which we wrote about here).


Continue Reading $12,000 Consent Decree Payment Demonstrates FCC Concerns About Sponsorship Identification Policies

The question has recently arisen as to when underwriting announcements can be aired on noncommercial radio and TV stations.  The New York Times recently quoted me on the subject in an article discussing the plans of PBS to experiment with putting underwriting announcements in programming, rather than merely in the breaks between the end of one program and the beginning of the next.  The FCC rules for both radio and TV state, in italics, that the scheduling of underwriting announcements "may not interrupt regular programming."  What does that mean?

In 1982, in adopting the rules as to the timing of sponsorship announcements and the acknowledgment of donations, the FCC relied on what was then a recently-enacted statute addressing the sponsorship of public broadcasting programming.  The House of Representatives report adopting that legislation contained language interpreting the meaning of the prohibition against these announcements interrupting regular programming.  The FCC relied on that language in adopting the rules currently on the book.  There, Congress said that announcements could be run "at the beginning and end of programs,…between identifiable segments of a longer program" or, in the absence of identifiable segments, during "station breaks" where the flow of programming was "not unduly disrupted."  For radio, this seems like a much easier test to meet, as there are always breaks in programs, e.g. between stories on a news program like Morning Edition, between guests on a program like Fresh Air, or between music sets on a noncommercial music-oriented station.  For TV, the issue is somewhat more complicated, thus the questions that the Times wrote about in connection with the PBS tests.


Continue Reading When Can Underwriting Announcements Be Run on Noncommercial Radio and TV Stations?

The FCC has issued two Notices of Apparent Liability, each proposing fines of $4000 to TV station licensees, both for airing video news releases ("VNR") in news or information programs without sponsorship identifications.  In both cases, the station received the VNRs for free, but was paid nothing for including them in their programming.  The station had no indication that any other party supplying the VNRs were paid for providing them to the station.  Nevertheless, relying on some very old statements of policy contained in an FCC Public Notice from 1975, the FCC concluded that the provision of the VNRs in and of themselves, constituted valuable consideration to the station, and the fact that they highlighted the commercial products of the companies that produced them "to an extent disproportionate to the subject matter of the film", mandated a sponsorship identification.

Both cases rely on an FCC Public Notice, first issued in 1963 and updated in 1975 (which I have been unable to locate on the FCC’s website), which sets out examples of how to comply with the sponsorship identification rules. These two old Public Notices were cited, but not reproduced, in a 2005 Public Notice, warning broadcasters to be careful with their use of VNRs.  The specific example cited by the FCC was one set out in these notices dealing with a film on scenic roadtrips provided by a bus company.  In the examples provided, the FCC stated that if the video did not show the bus company’s name, or the bus company’s name was shown only "fleetingly" in pictured of the highway in a manner reasonably related to the program, there would be no sponsorship identification requirement.  In cases where the bus company’s name was clearly shown, "disproportionate to the subject matter of the film", then sponsorship identification would be required "as the broadcaster has impliedly agreed to broadcast an identification beyond that reasonably related to the subject matter of the film."  Based on these examples, the FCC levied the fines in the cases just released.  An examination of the facts of these cases is important to understand these fines and how far the FCC ruling in these cases extends.


Continue Reading FCC Fines Two TV Stations $4000 For Airing Video News Releases Without Sponsorship Identification, Even Though the Stations Were Not Paid for the Broadcast

Fines for noncommercial broadcasters who air acknowledgments of their donors and contributors that sound too much like commercials have been a problem area for many noncommercial educational radio and television stations, and have resulted in significant fines from the FCC.  The FCC allows "enhanced underwriting announcements" that identify a sponsor, what their business is

Stations that are licensed as "noncommercial educational" stations are prohibited by the FCC from running commercials – seemingly a pretty straightforward prohibition.  Yet drawing the line between a prohibited commercial and a permissible sponsorship acknowledgment is sometimes difficult in these days of "enhanced underwriting."   In a recent case, the FCC fined a noncommercial radio station $12,500 for repeatedly airing 4 announcements from sponsors that the Commission found to have crossed the line by being overly promotional.  These announcements, which appear to have been recordings of unscripted sponsor acknowledgments, demonstrate how carefully noncommercial stations must police their sponsorship announcements to avoid risking an FCC sanction.

The announcements in these cases are worth reviewing. Some have subtle promotional messages, while the areas of concern are more clear in others.  But in reaching its decision, the Commission goes through a close analysis of the wording of each announcement to see if the announcement contains "comparative or qualitative descriptions, price information, calls to action, or inducements to buy, sell, rent or lease", all prohibited language in a noncommercial sponsorship identification.  So, when one of the announcement referred to "beautiful Harley Davidson light trucks" sold by a local auto dealer who sponsored the station, the FCC found that this was a qualitative claim that went over the line.  Similarly, statements that "we have it here" or "where we are proud to be Mexicans" (these announcements having been run on a Spanish-language station in California) were found to be attempts to qualitatively distinguish this dealer from others, or to be inducements to buy – a prohibited call to action.  And a specific statement that "no downpayment" would be required on a purchase constituted the kind of price information that should not be contained in a sponsorship acknowledgment.  Another announcement for a local tire store had similar problems in the content of the ads, using phrases such as stating that the company "knows about tires" and that the company’s product "reduces [the] loss [of tire] pressure" and "has less risk of suffering damages . . . last longer and [is] not too expensive cause you to save more . . . [and] save more in gas per mileage."


Continue Reading Noncommercial FM Station Fined $12,500 for Sponsorship Acknowledgments That Were Too Commercial