FCC 'clarification' further confuses debate on VNRs

WASHINGTON: A reminder issued by the FCC about existing disclosure guidelines applicable to some VNRs has only intensified - and possibly muddied - an already heated debate about the common broadcast tool.

WASHINGTON: A reminder issued by the FCC about existing disclosure guidelines applicable to some VNRs has only intensified - and possibly muddied - an already heated debate about the common broadcast tool.

Citing the Communications Act of 1934, the notice states that sponsorship identification rules "impose a greater obligation of disclosure in connection with political material and program matter dealing with controversial issues."

"We will take appropriate action against entities that do not comply with these rules," the notice stated.

One source of confusion is the fact that not much in the notice appears to directly pertain to corporate VNRs promoting a product or service. One section applies disclosure rules to material for which money, services, or valuable consideration is either paid or promised to the broadcaster. The most pertinent part is in the introduction, which states that when airing VNRs, broadcasters must disclose the nature, source, and sponsorship of the material to their audiences.

Some broadcast providers believe the FCC should not get involved in mandating disclosure of corporate VNRs.

Kevin Foley, KEF Media president, said the FCC is blurring the line between government materials and corporate VNRs.

"The government has no business sticking its nose into news or communications as we practice it here," he said. "The FCC has no jurisdiction over news and news content."

Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman, said the FCC reminder is "government reaction to popular outcry."

"I believe that it's entirely proper that VNRs produced for government should be acknowledged in some way," he said. "I do not believe in the need for government to put a black box on any VNR that's produced for a company."

Despite the recent attention given to VNRs, broadcast providers' business has seemingly not suffered.

"Business is fantastic," said MultiVu president Larry Thomas. "[It's] better than ever."

The effect on broadcasters still remains to be seen. Jim Dick, news director at WMTV, an NBC affiliate in Madison, WI, said the FCC reminder does not affect him because full disclosure has always been part of standard procedure at his station.

"To me, it's not a big deal," he said. "You should tell viewers who's giving you this material."

But Harris Diamond, CEO of Weber Shandwick, said the fact that VNRs are receiving so much attention signals an effect on the industry.

"At the end of the day, I think there will be an impact on the usage of VNRs throughout the country," he added. "[Broadcasters] will look [at VNRs] with a little more of a skeptical eye."

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