Latest FCC fines place VNRs in the spotlight

WASHINGTON: The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) early this month levied four more fines against Comcast for airing VNRs without proper attribution, in a move that activists believe signals the agency is coming around to their viewpoint.

WASHINGTON: The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) early this month levied four more fines against Comcast for airing VNRs without proper attribution, in a move that activists believe signals the agency is coming around to their viewpoint.

The FCC issued the "Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture" (NAL) for a total fine of $16,000 for four VNRs that ran on the Comcast-owned network CN8. Significantly, the agency ruled that VNRs themselves are a "valuable consideration" to a network apart from any other payment, an interpretation that could open stations up to fines simply for airing insufficiently labeled VNRs.

These levies come on the heels of an earlier $4,000 fine the FCC imposed on Comcast for a September 2006 VNR that also aired on CN8 (PRWeek, October 1).

"This is the first time the FCC has made that argument," said Diane Farsetta, a senior researcher for the Center for Media and Democracy, the activist group that brought the complaint against Comcast. "This is actually an argument that [we] advanced... pointing out that, especially with the downsizing of TV newsrooms, in effect [VNRs] were becoming undeclared parts of TV newsrooms' budgets."

Comcast senior director of corporate communications and government affairs Sena Fitzmaurice said via e-mail, "The FCC's preliminary findings are legally unfounded and factually distorted as CN8 received no payment or benefit by using the material, which came from a legitimate broadcast media subscription service. We expect that our judgments will ultimately be vindicated."

Kevin Foley, founder of KEF Media and president of the National Association of Broadcast Communicators, stressed that the FCC's decision is preliminary and will be appealed. He added that the NABC is in discussions with the FCC on the issue, and that he is "hopeful" of finding common ground.

"It's important to let the process work its course," he noted. "We're concerned about our free speech, as well as the First Amendment free press rights that the electronic news media enjoy in this country."

Foley added that the NABC isn't recommending any changes in practices to its members at the present time.

The CMD reported more than 100 VNR episodes to the FCC, which are still pending.

"Just reading the notices that they put out so far with the Comcast fines," said Farsetta, "I don't see how other stations couldn't be fined for what we documented."

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