FCC issues VNR fines
The commission charged Comcast $20,000 for
airing video news releases without naming the source.
December 1, 2007
In response to complaints filed by public interest groups in November 2006, the FCC has fined Comcast $20,000 for carrying portions of video news releases (VNRs) without attributing them to a source. The material was carried in cablecasts of four episodes of a consumer interest program appearing on a regional Comcast channel.
Section 76.1615(a) of the commission's rules, which applies to cable-originated programming, is similar to the sponsorship identification rule applicable to broadcasters. Both rules require sponsorship identification where program materials are provided at no or nominal cost because the free footage is deemed to have significant value. Here is a summary of the VNRs at issue:
One segment about nonprescription sleep aids featured footage produced by Nelson's Rescue Sleep, a natural sleep aid product. It was the only product mentioned during the segment, which contained the statement, “If you are one of the estimated 70 million Americans who have trouble sleeping, Rescue Sleep may be what you're looking for.”
A segment about health and fitness used material produced by General Mills about Wheaties cereal and the “Wheaties Fit to Win Challenge.” Again, this was the only commercial product shown or mentioned during the segment.
Another segment discussed the importance of life insurance and that September is “National Insurance Month.” The segment showed footage from two interviews with a representative of Allstate Insurance. One portion contained the Allstate logo. Both interviews were produced by Allstate.
A segment that discussed laptop computer security employed video footage produced by Trend Micro, the maker of a software product called Remote File Lock. The video illustrated the dangers posed by lax security and the prevalence of identity theft from laptop users. The specific footage explained the utility of that product as a defense against identity theft.
One segment featured extensive images and mentions of Bisquick pancake mix. The segment was produced by General Mills, and Bisquick was the only commercial product shown during the segment. The story was about the history of Bisquick and ran on its 75th anniversary.
Comcast argues its case
Comcast contended that Section 76.1615(a) of the rules is invalid because Section 317 of the Communications Act, which authorizes the FCC to regulate sponsorship identifications, applies only to broadcasters and not to cablecasting. Comcast further argued that it did not violate the rule because it received no compensation in exchange for use of the VNRs. The FCC affirmed its jurisdiction over cablecasting and found that Comcast received valuable consideration when it was provided with the free material.
VNRs' affect on newsrooms
This and other recent decisions dealing with VNRs raise First Amendment issues because they intrude into the newsroom and affect editorial independence. This is of particular concern where VNRs are edited by a station's news staff or where only small clips from such materials are used in newscasts or other programming. For this reason, the Radio and Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) has actively opposed the FCC's initiatives in this area. The FCC crackdown on VNRs has not yet reached the courts.
Harry C. Martin is a past president of the Federal Communications Bar Association and a member of Fletcher, Heald and Hildreth, PLC.
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