VNRs, a continuing problem

Video news releases (VNRs), unsolicited taped publicity pieces, continue to create issues for TV stations that do not identify the sources when all or part of such pieces appear in their newscasts.

About a year ago, the FCC publicly warned licensees that they might have to disclose the origins of any tape used in a newscast if it was originally provided as part of a VNR. The warning arose after government-produced VNRs — including fully-produced packages that look like news stories — appeared on-air at some stations.

The commission also asked for public comment on VNR use, with the apparent intention of banning their use except where the sponsoring organization or government agency is properly identified.

According to a recently released study prepared by the Center for Media and Democracy and Free Press, as many as 77 TV stations used VNR-provided tape in the last year without disclosing its origins. The study was released with considerable fanfare, accompanied by a statement from Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, a long-time critic of VNRs. Adelstein and his colleague, Michael Copps, have demanded that these stations apologize to their viewers.

Last spring, the FCC suggested that it could enforce good journalism practices through commission rules requiring disclosure of sponsorship and similar financial interests. The theory is that somebody somewhere presumably paid good money to have the VNR produced, with the goal being to persuade somebody of something through a broadcast of the piece. The sponsorship identification rules require that when a station receives consideration for the broadcast of any material, or when a station has actual knowledge that consideration was paid somewhere along the line, the station is obligated to disclose that information to its audience. Section 73.1212(a)(2) of the rules states that where a piece is provided free of charge, or at a nominal charge, no sponsorship ID is required.

Certainly, licensees have an interest in doing the right thing and disclosing to their audiences who is sponsoring various materials in their newscasts. But now, another more practical reason for policing compliance with the sponsorship ID rules is looming. The attorney general of New York, Eliot Spitzer, has been on a crusade against payola practices on the part of major record companies and radio licensees. He has entered into multimillion-dollar settlements with at least two record giants and has filed a lawsuit against a major group radio station owner. All the while, Spitzer has complained that the FCC has not enforced the payola (i.e., sponsorship ID) rules.

In April, the commission sent letters of inquiry to four broadcast groups seeking information concerning their relationships with record companies and record promoters. Published reports suggest that the four radio groups were negotiating with the FCC to try to reach a consent agreement under which they would make a “voluntary” contribution to the U.S. Treasury and possibly agree to adopt certain procedures and policies aimed at preventing sponsorship ID violations. But reports indicate that no agreement has been reached because the FCC is looking for a contribution of many millions of dollars, not the $1 million the broadcasters offered.

With sponsorship ID investigations open on at least two fronts, the VNR issue is not going away. As a result, broadcasters would be well-advised to take a close look at their own internal policies relating to this issue. The sources of VNRs should, in all cases, be identified on the air. If the FCC decides to enforce this, fines could amount to tens of thousands of dollars or more due to the recent attention being given to sponsorship identification issues.

Harry C. Martin is the immediate-past president of the Federal Communications Bar Association and a member of Fletcher, Heald and Hildreth PLC.

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