Posted by Diane Farsetta on October 10, 2007

Diane Farsetta, Center for Media and Democracy
October 11, 2007

In Brief

Despite mounting pressure from the public and the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), television stations continue to air sponsored public relations videos without disclosure. The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) identified three recent instances where a single television station aired video news releases (VNRs), which are sponsored segments designed to mimic genuine news reports.

Over the past six weeks, WGTU-TV 29 (Traverse City, Mich.) has aired:

The above links contain more information on each VNR broadcast, including videos of the original VNR and the WGTU newscast that incorporated it.

Background

Video news releases are public relations videos designed to look like television news stories. The vast majority of VNRs are funded by corporate clients to promote the company's products or public image. (See "Fake TV News: Introduction" and "Fake TV News: Corporations" for more information.)

CMD has authored two in-depth multimedia reports on television newsrooms' use of VNRs: "Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed," released in April 2006, and "Still Not the News: Stations Overwhelmingly Fail to Disclose VNRs," released in November 2006. Together, these reports identified 111 TV stations across the country that had aired VNRs or related public relations videos. Of the 140 VNR broadcasts documented, only two offered clear disclosure to viewers.

Following the release of CMD's first report, the broadcast public relations firm D S Simon Productions began adding brief, on-screen and verbal sponsor notifications at the end of its pre-packaged VNRs. CMD's second report found that these notifications, in and of themselves, do not ensure viewers' right to know. Stations airing these VNRs removed the notifications and still failed to provide disclosure to viewers 80 percent of the time. (See "Still Not the News.")

This mini-report is meant as a brief update to CMD's more comprehensive reporting on the VNR issue.

Disclosure Requirements

According to the Federal Communications Commission's April 2005 Public Notice, TV stations airing VNRs "must clearly disclose to members of their audiences the nature, source and sponsorship of the material." (See "Fake TV News: Recommendations.")

In August 2006, the FCC launched an investigation of the 77 stations named in CMD's first report. The agency sent letters of inquiry to the owners of these stations, asking for evidence regarding their undisclosed use of VNRs.

In April 2007, the FCC sent letters of inquiry to the owner of at least one of the stations named in CMD's second report. In September 2007, the FCC announced five fines against Comcast Corporation, for its cable channel CN8 having aired multiple VNRs without disclosure. These VNR broadcasts were documented in CMD's second report.

While the status of the FCC's investigation into the other 110 broadcast and cable stations is unclear, the agency's recent statements suggest more fines are forthcoming. The more recent "Notice of Apparent Liability" against Comcast states that "the VNR itself was the 'valuable consideration' provided to CN8." This language indicates that the FCC has rejected arguments that disclosure is only required when stations are paid to air VNRs, or when VNRs deal with controversial or political issues.

Along with the media reform group Free Press, CMD has urged the FCC to strengthen and clarify VNR requirements, recommending that:

  • All broadcast of provided and/or sponsored video footage be required to carry a continuous, frame-by-frame visual notification of its source;
  • All broadcast of provided and/or sponsored audio material be required to include a verbal notification at its beginning and/or end, disclosing its source; and
  • Broadcasters be required to place in their public file a monthly report on their use of provided and/or sponsored material.

These recommendations have been endorsed in full by the Writers Guild of America, East, which counts many television news writers among its members.

Resources

More information can be found at the following links.

VNR broadcasts by WGTU-TV 29

Center for Media and Democracy VNR reports

Formal complaints, filed with the FCC by CMD and Free Press

FCC documents regarding VNR disclosure

Comments

Something must be done now... I will go as far as suggesting that the FCC begins revoking licenses for such unacceptable behavior!!! I hope that this "Fake News Parade" does not carry over into the Digital Era starting June 12th!!!

Yeah the propaganda and fake news and bombardment of advertising in all its forms (on cars, taking public space on streets, all over the internet, spam e-mails, billboards, television/radio advertising, sporting events, telemarketers college campuses) NOTHING is sacred anymore. We already live in a depressingly commercialized paranoid society. And the craziest thing about it is that people accept it as part of daily life. I REFUSE to watch more than a half hour of TV a day because it is sickening to me how much garbage and advertising is everywhere. And this generation of kids (and hey im only in my early 20s) are already used to it with myspace and they accept it.
And even when we try to hear REAL news, we hear BS news such as "Whos the hottest dancer on "Dancing with the stars"? " WHO CARES! Our economy and country is going in the crapper, and people actually think some overpaid materialistic celebrities are NEWS? GET A GRIP

Vnr's need to be clamped down on - they have no place in proper journalism; People turn to the news to hopefully find some information about the world, not to be given sub-liminal advertising without their knowledge. What do you expect from capitalism though...profit is all that matters!

This is just another case of corporations being corporations.

To the powerful corporation, the law is not something to be followed, merely something to be avoided, circumvented or ignored outright.

You can be sure that the fines that the stations receive is merely factored in to the cost of the sponsored advertisement.