FCC’s Adelstein calls for probe of payola in broadcasting

FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, warning that American television has sunk into a “bottomless pit of commercialism,” has called for an investigation of self-described experts who tout products on news programs without disclosing payments from the manufacturers.

He warned that such appearances violate federal laws against payola and said there’s a consensus among FCC commissioners to begin taking vigorous enforcement action against networks, stations and individuals who fail to disclose the payments involved.

In a speech last week before the Media Institute in Washington, D.C., Adelstein fiercely attacked “the increasing commercialization” of broadcast news and information programming that amounts to “deception or evasive practices being perpetrated” on the American people.

Adelstein cited reports in the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post that technology and other experts who are paid tens of thousands of dollars by companies have positively discussed the firms’ products on NBC’s “Today” show, other network programs and during satellite tours of local TV stations.

This kind of activity, Adelstein said, is a violation of Section 317 of the Federal Communications Act requiring stations to announce when they are airing material for which they have received a payment or other consideration. He urged that the FCC investigate the revelations made in the newspaper articles.

Broadcast licensees, cable operators, and any entity or individual involved in the production and provision of video news releases have disclosure responsibilities under the commission’s sponsorship ID rules, he said.

The disclosure requirement also applies, whether or not something of value has changed hands, when a broadcaster airs controversial issues or political programming that has been furnished to them by an outsider. In those cases, he warned, they also must identify the sponsor.

He warned that broadcasters couldn’t simply turn a blind eye, but have an affirmative legal duty to engage in reasonable diligence to find out whether anything of value has changed hands. He also warned that disclosures of sponsorship to the viewing audience be meaningful and clear.