sponsorship identification

In a decision released this week, the FCC fined a Chicago radio station $44,000 for omitting sponsorship identification announcements on 11 on-air spots promoting the positions of the sponsoring organization on certain issues facing the local community.  Finding that the purpose of the sponsorship identification rules (Section 317 of the Communications Act and Section 73.1212 of the FCC rules) is to allow the station’s listeners to know who is trying to convince them of whatever is being broadcast, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau decided that each of the violations would be assessed the base fine of $4000 – meaning that there was a total fine of $44,000.

We wrote about the original Notice of Violation in this case two years ago, here.  In a two month period, the station had run a series of paid announcements on behalf of an organization called Workers Independent News (“WIN”), addressing social and political issues.  The announcements consisted of 45 90-second spots, 27 15-second promotional announcements, two two-hour programs, and one one-hour program.  All but 11 of these announcements had proper sponsorship identifications.  Even those 11 announcements identified the announcer as being with WIN, but they did not specifically say that the 11 spots had been “paid for” or “sponsored by” by the organization.  That alone was enough to prompt the fine.  But $44,000?
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At its meeting today, the FCC vacated its 2007 Order mandating an online public file and the filing of the Form 355 “Enhanced Disclosure” form that detailed the public interest service of television broadcasters. But these requirements are not gone, as the Commission has adopted a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking asking to reinstate an obligation for an online public file, and a Notice of Inquiry is apparently circulating at the FCC that would propose a substitute for the Form 355. The proposal for the new online public file apparently also suggests including new information in the online file, including information about sponsorship identification and copies of shared service agreements. While the text of the FCC order is not yet out, from the information provided at the FCC meeting, the following matters appear to be on the table at the FCC:

  • The FCC proposes that TV broadcasters will need to have an online public file, submitted to and maintained on servers at the FCC rather than on each individual station’s website
    • Several Commissioners suggest that the Commission will develop a mechanism for accessible storage of online public files, which may be searchable by the public
    • The online public file form will automatically import other FCC filings that are required to be in the file
    • Until the FCC electronic database is perfected, the documents will be placed online in their current formats
  • Letters from the public concerning station operations are proposed to be excluded from the online file out of privacy concerns, though broadcasters will still need to keep those letters in a public file at the station.
  • The online public file is proposed to include the political file, which was exempt under the 2007 rule as it would be too burdensome to update that report rapidly during an election season
  • The online file is proposed to include additional material not now required to be in the public file, including:
    • Copies of shared services agreements
    • Sponsorship identification information that is now only broadcast on air in connection with the program in which sponsored material is included
  • The FCC is currently considering a Notice of Inquiry, a draft of which is apparently circulating among the Commissioners now, that proposes some form of enhanced disclosure form that will replace the Form 355 (and the current Quarterly Programs Issues list) to document the public service provided by TV broadcasters


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The FCC has issued a Forfeiture Order, confirming a $4000 fine levied against a Minneapolis TV station for airing a video news release ("VNR") without sponsorship identification.  This case was previously discussed in our March 25th blog entry, when the Commission issued a Notice of Apparent Liability ("NAL") against the station for this violation.  The primary lesson to be learned from this decision is that video supplied for free may require sponsorship ID if furnished for the purpose of identifying a product or furthering a sponsor’s message beyond any independent (i.e., newsworthy) reason a station has for airing it.

In arguing against the NAL, the station put forth several arguments, all of which were rejected by the FCC.  The station argued that its use of a video supplied by General Motors for a story about the popularity of convertibles in the summer was equivalent to use of a company press release, which the FCC has found acceptable in the past.  But the FCC said that use of a press release without sponsorship ID is permitted only if references to products or brand names are "transient or fleeting."  Here, by contrast, the FCC found the identification of GM cars to be "disproportionate to the subject matter of the news report."


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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.


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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. 


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On December 1, 2009,  FTC revised Guidelines went into effect updating policies dealing with advertising using testimonials and endorsements, specifically affecting celebrity endorsements and sponsorship disclosure.  These revised guidelines directly impact the established practices of broadcasters and new media companies.  These revised endorsement and testimonial guidelines effectively ban the old standard “results not typical” disclaimer so commonly in use in connection with a great deal of testimonial advertising, confirm independent liability for the “endorser” (including celebrities) for false product or service claims, and expand and clarify the need for disclosure of “material connections”, that is consideration (money and other “freebies”) received by new media companies in connection with reviews or other online coverage of products or services.  It is vital that media companies, in particular new media, understand the key provisions of these guidelines to make sure that they don’t become a target of any FTC enforcement action.  The FTC has indicated that for now at least, its focus will be on enforcement in the new media world (bloggers, social media, viral campaigns) and other “non-traditional” advertising (celebrity guests on news and entertainment shows, endorsements by media personnel such as on-air DJ’s).

Like all FTC Guidance concerning advertising, the revised guidelines are specific regulations, but instead they set out standards (in essence a safe harbor) that outline how the FTC will review advertising to determine if it is “false and deceptive” or otherwise misleading to the consumer in violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act.  The revised guidelines provide specific examples as to how they will apply to insure sufficient disclosure so that the listener has all the background necessary to be able to evaluate the strength of the endorsement for him or herself.  For broadcast advertising, the new guidelines make clear that endorsers can themselves be liable for misleading statements made during a product pitch.  So a radio announcer paid to try a diet plan or some other product and to report about its results on the air needs to be sure not only that his statements are truthful, but that the “results” claimed are in line with what the advertiser can actually prove for the product through clinical study and research.  The radio pitchman cannot turn a blind eye to claims that are inherently incredible.  In the past, a simple disclosure that "your results may vary" or "these results are not necessarily typical" was sufficient.  Today, that disclaimer is no longer enough.  Instead, the new guidelines state that any testimonial about the results of using a product be accompanied with a disclosure of the results that a typical user can expect to get from the product.  So the announcer must be informed as to what results can be expected by the typical user, and that these results are objectively verifiable, so that the proper disclosure can be made.  As the announcer (or the station) can now be liable for statements made in such testimonials, stations should take care to be prepared to make the required disclosures. 


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On November 10, Davis Wright Tremaine’s David Oxenford and Bobby Baker, the head of the FCC’s Office of Political Broadcasting, conducted a webinar on the FCC’s political broadcasting rules and policies.  The webinar originated from Lansing, Michigan, before an audience of Michigan Broadcasters, and was webcast to broadcasters in 13 other states.  Topics discussed included reasonable

Davis Wright Tremaine attorneys Amber Husbands and David Oxenford conducted a webinar on August 26, 2009 for the Kansas Association of Broadcasters, discussing legal issues of importance to on-air talent.  Issues discussed included broadcast indecency, station contests, sponsorship identification and payola issues, potential liability that can arise from the use of

A story in today’s Wall Street Journal discusses the significant amount of money being spent on television advertising for and against pending proposals for health care reform.  As we have written before, broadcasters are required to keep in their public file information about advertising dealing with Federal issues – records as detailed as those kept for political candidates.  Information in the file should include not only the sponsor of the ad, but also when the spots are scheduled to run (and, after the fact, when they did in fact run), the class of time purchased, and the price paid for the advertising.  Clearly, the health care issue is a Federal issue, as it is being considered by the US Congress in Washington.  So remember to keep your public file up to date with this required information. 

Section 315 of the Communications Act deals with these issues, stating that these records must be kept for any request to purchase time on a "political matter of national importance", which is defined as any matter relating to a candidate or Federal election or "a national legislative issue of public importance."  Clearly, health care would fit in that definition.  The specific information to be kept in the file includes:

  • If the request to purchase time is accepted or rejected
  • Dates on which the ad is run
  • The rates charged by the station
  • Class of time purchased
  • The issue to which the ad refers
  • The name of the purchaser of the advertising time including:
    • The name, address and phone number of a contact person
    • A list of the chief executive officers or members of the executive committee or board of directors of the sponsoring organization.


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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.


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