Many FCC commissioners adopt a signature issue as their own special concern, and for Jonathan Adelstein (D) that issue has been sponsorship identification and other concerns falling into the broad payola category. He aired his concerns at a media conference last weekend, while also calling for a reversal of last December’s relaxation of broadcast/print cross-ownership rules.
He based his concerns on the notion that in exchange for the opportunity to run broadcast operations as a commercial for-profit enterprise, broadcasters promise to serve the public interest. His charge is that the process of relaxing rules begun during the Reagan administration have produced an environment where entertainment and profit have shoved public interest concerns into the shadows, citing the “race to the bottom” phrase popularly used by his colleague Michael Copps. To the end of at least holding the line on corporate expansion, he expressed opposition to the cross-ownership easement and praised the Resolution of Disapproval pushed through the Senate by Byron Dorgan (D-ND). He urged the House to ratify the measure and said even if it is vetoed it’ll be back soon enough.
His major broadsides were aimed at government messages put before the public without proper sourcing – most recently the Pentagon project that used over 75 retired military experts to spread DOD talking points throughout the media. Included in that category were pay-for-say efforts, most notably involving Armstrong Williams, and the creation and distribution of unattributed VNRs.
RBR/TVBR observation: While Adelstein’s attitudes may seem alarming, there may well not that much for broadcasters to be concerned about. Most of the companies with both newspaper and broadcast properties have been actively splitting them up, either by making them independent divisions within the corporate structure, or by selling one or the other. The two companies most concerned with keeping such cross-owned combos together, Tribune and Media General, received permanent waivers in key markets last December which may prove difficult for a new administration to undo. Given today’s tight credit market, it’s hard to believe many are looking to combine newspaper and television operations at a time when both businesses are facing unprecedented challenges.
Most of the propaganda/disclosure issues Adelstein is concerned about fall on government agencies and departments – the only change for broadcasters would be that they simply wouldn’t be receiving nearly as much surreptitious material from them any longer.
The biggest change from an Adelstein-influenced FCC affecting broadcaster might be in the area of disclosure when clients pay for product placement or to have their product featured in an expert demonstration on a talk, news/info or variety program. But at this point, commenting on where that debate might and what the business ramifications may be is pure speculation.
We will admit that as consumers we are in favor of fair sponsor identification – if our Little Orphan Annie Decoder Ring is simply going to be a vehicle to sell Ovaltine, we want to know about it in advance.