The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has announced four more fines against Comcast, for its cable channel CN8 having aired multiple video news releases (VNRs) without disclosure. But the bigger story is the FCC's reasoning behind the fines.
In the new notice, the FCC states that "the VNR itself was the 'valuable consideration' provided to CN8." This is the first time that the agency has equated VNRs with "valuable consideration," an argument that the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) has long advanced.
What does this mean and why is it a big deal? Basically, it shoots out of the water a favorite argument of broadcasters and their friends in the PR industry: that disclosure is only required when stations are paid to air VNRs, or when VNRs deal with controversial or political issues.
The FCC began to chip away at that argument last week, when it fined Comcast for airing a sleep remedy VNR. At the time, the agency explained that the VNR footage aired by CN8 contained "extensive images and mentions of the product." That left me -- and probably hundreds of broadcasters and cablecasters across the United States -- wondering just how promotional was too promotional, in the FCC's eyes.
But the FCC now seems to be strengthening their VNR disclosure standards. The "valuable consideration" language hearkens back to early radio payola scandals, when record companies gave stations money or valuable gifts in return for airing their labels' artists.
Given how expensive it is to produce, film, edit and script a real television news report, CMD estimates that TV newsrooms save thousands of dollars for each minute that they air VNR footage instead of real news. Therefore, as the director of George Washington University's journalism program stated, "stations that accept outside video are in effect accepting an in-kind contribution from that source."
In other words, every VNR is a "valuable consideration" to the newsroom that receives it, and its source must be disclosed to news viewers. Given that CMD's two reports named 111 TV stations, the FCC will presumably be issuing many more fines. (All five fines announced to date stem from the CMD report "Still Not the News," and a formal complaint filed by CMD and Free Press. Complaints against the more than 100 other stations that CMD documented airing fake news without disclosure, in the "Still Not the News" and "Fake TV News" reports, are still pending.)
The FCC also faults the newly-fined VNRs for their promotional content, saying it goes far beyond the acceptable "fleeting or transient references to products or brand names." Watch the VNRs at the following links, and see the shilling for yourself:
- General Mills "Don't Be a Couch Potato" VNR, which promoted Wheaties brand cereal. After the segment, CN8 consumer reporter Janet Zappala gave viewers the address for the Wheaties website. WUHF-31 in Rochester, NY also aired this VNR. A WUHF anchor even asked news viewers, while holding a box of the cereal, "Did you eat your Wheaties today?"
- An Allstate VNR, which promoted life insurance. Zappala helpfully read straight from the VNR's script, telling viewers "life insurance is like money in the bank." The FCC noted that the Allstate representative interviewed in the segment was "seated in front of the Allstate logo."
- General Mills "Bisquick 75th Anniversary" VNR. The CN8 segment, once again introduced and narrated by Zappala, "almost continually featured the Bisquick logo," as CMD's "Still Not the News" report noted.
- Trend Micro Software's VNR, which promoted their computer security software. In this case, the original VNR ended with a verbal and on-screen mention of Trend Micro as the source of the video. CN8 edited out this built-in disclosure before airing it, as yet another Zappala "consumer report."
The vast majority of VNRs are funded by corporations to promote their products or public image. That's why, back in March 2005, the head of the major PR firm Medialink Worldwide reacted to the uproar over Bush administration VNRs by telling his colleagues:
[L]et's remember this debate, from everything I've seen, read, heard, and talked to, is purely the government. It has -- I don't hear anybody issuing a healing cry over the stuff that we do day-in and day-out; it's really government. And I'm glad the story is kind of focused there, because I would hate to see it broaden, and it seems very focused.
And that's why, if the FCC applies its recently-articulated VNR disclosure standards, news viewers' right to know will be protected at least 95 percent of the time. That's a vast improvement over the current vast wasteland of fake TV news.