WASHINGTON: In a precedent-setting first, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has fined Comcast $4,000 for airing a VNR without disclosure.
The ruling is the result of a complaint filed jointly by The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) and Free Press, two media watchdog organizations.
The footage in question, for a sleep aid called Nelson’s Rescue Sleep, aired in September 2006 on CN8, a Comcast cable station.
“We are perplexed by this bureau action,” wrote Sena Fitzmaurice, senior director of corporate communications at Comcast, in an e-mail. “The relevant statute does not cover cable programming, and even if it did, CN8’s programming was entirely consistent with the statute. The segments in question were chosen by journalists in the course of reporting, and Comcast received no consideration or benefit by using the material. We will reiterate these facts in our response to this notice.”
The National Association of Broadcast Communicators (NABC), which has argued against requiring disclosure, maintains their stance.
“VNRs are provided completely free of charge, and broadcasters or cable programmers are totally free, in their editorial discretion, to decide whether or not to use them in whole or in part,” reads an e-mailed statement from the NABC, sent to PRWeek by NABC president and KEF Media founder Kevin Foley. “Congress has mandated that if material is provided for free, disclosure is compelled under limited circumstances.”
The ruling also states that an NABC member, DS Simon Productions, produced the VNR in question, an assertion the NABC says is incorrect. They are discussing the matter with their attorneys.
CMD applauded the ruling, stating that it’s not about banning VNRs, but making sure the public knows what they’re watching. The organization embarked on a 16-month-long investigation between July 2005 and November 2006, into whether television stations were using VNRs and how they were being used. According to Diane Farsetta, senior researcher at CMD, they found 140 instances of stations airing footage without stating that they were VNRs.
“At the root is the distinction between reporting and PR materials,” said Farsetta. “Presumably, there will be more announcements like this coming.”