Finally, FCC May Turn to Real 'Indecency'

It's hard to imagine a greater "indecency" on broadcast television than faking the news or tricking viewers into believing commercials are genuine informational programs.
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It's hard to imagine a greater "indecency" on broadcast television than faking the news or tricking viewers into believing commercials are genuine informational programs.

Like it or not, most people in the United States depend on the broadcast medium for most of their news and information. Very few viewers have the level of media literacy required to figure out the difference between the blow-dried news reporter and the blow-dried actor playing one on TV.

Since broadcasters enjoy the free use of the public's spectrum in exchange for some modicum of public service, one would think the industry would be long beyond "payola" in news and information programming. Unfortunately, it's not. The problem has never been worse.

The good news is that the FCC has finally been embarrassed enough to do something about it. Speaking at a Media Institute event in Washington, D.C., recently, FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein issued a scathing attack on the practice of tricking viewers with fake news reports that mask commercial plugs.

"Not only are celebrity chefs and celebrity fashion up for sale but, most ominously, news shows are increasingly up for bid," he said.

The Democratic commissioner, just reappointed by the Bush White House to another term on the FCC, also made it clear that he was speaking on behalf of the majority of the commission, which he promised will soon "vigorously" crack down on the practice.

As a prelude, the FCC issued a "Payola Fact Sheet" that states the rules and tells viewers how to complain. The complaint part got early traction. The media activist group Free Press has already filed a formal FCC complaint, citing government payments to commentator Armstrong Williams and incidents of "pay-for-play endorsements" on NBC's "Today Show."

For reasons ranging from a relaxation of public service requirements to broadcast ownership consolidation, Adelstein used his speech to deplore the increasing commercialization of American media.

"We see reports of video news releases masquerading as independent, legitimate news; PR agents pushing political and commercial agendas that squeeze out real news coverage and local community concerns; product placements turning news and entertainment shows alike into undisclosed commercials; and well-trained marketers preying on the unsuspecting minds of our young children," Adelstein said.

Viewers, he said, are frustrated by what they see as "fake news" and relentless marketing. "They are angry when they do not get real news and accurate information that empowers them to make informed decisions. It is no wonder trust in the media is at an all-time low--something needs to be done."

The problems, Adelstein said, go far beyond the issue of government video news releases on news broadcasts. There are also covert commercial pitches.

"Product promos parade as independent and unbiased reviews by experts on everything from the latest electronics gadgets to children's toys," he said. "It works like this: consumer product experts pitch themselves to manufacturers to mention their products on television--for a fee of course--and then they pitch themselves to local TV stations for interviews.

"The media appearances often coincide with holidays or tradeshows," he continued. "The experts may conduct dozens of interviews with different stations over the course of a day in what is called a 'satellite tour.' These so-called experts do not always disclose their financial interest in the products they promote--and as a result stations do not always disclose that to viewers."

Adelstein cited recent news reports saying that a mention on a local news show ranges in value from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, and if a mention makes it on to network shows like "Good Morning America" or the "Today Show," the publicity value skyrockets to a quarter of a million dollars.

On-air "experts" and PR agents sometimes say it is the broadcasters' responsibility to disclose, Adelstein noted. Broadcasters sometimes say they are not aware of money changing hands.

"But the law does not allow this blame game," Adelstein said.

On-air "experts" must disclose to stations that they have been paid for promoting a product on the air, and broadcasters must then disclose to their audience that someone was paid for it.

Those disclosures must be meaningful, he emphasized.

"A disclosure that appears on screen for a split second during the credits in small type that no one could possibly read without pausing their DVR--and pulling out a magnifying glass--could not possibly qualify," he said.

Adelstein said there is "a shocking lack of awareness about our rules by broadcasters and on-air personalities alike. Both are required to disclose. Undisclosed promotions are not just wrong--they are payola, and they are illegal. That applies to product placements, paid VNRs, or anything for which payment is made but not disclosed. It is high time to employ some lessons about the law so this does not continue happening."