The Federal Communications Commission's Enforcement Bureau confirmed that it believes cable operators are subject to FCC sponsorship-identification rules.
That came Monday in a proposed $4,000 fine against cable operator Comcast for allegedly violating those rules in airing portions of a video news release as part of programming it originated -- in this case a VNR for a sleep aid as part of a "consumer issues" segment.
"I applaud the Media Bureau's decision to enforce our sponsorship identification rules, and to propose, for the first time, a forfeiture for the failure to disclose the sponsor of a video news release," said FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, who has made identifying commercial material in TV programming a key issue in his second term as commissioner. "Commission rules are clear: viewers have a right to know who is trying to persuade them so they can make up their own minds about what they are presented. I applaud Chairman Martin’s leadership, and look forward to quick action on the many other pending video news release complaints."
Comcast argued that the rules applied to broadcasters, not cable operators, but the FCC said its rules clearly state that "when a cable-television-system operator engages in origination cablecasting, it must identify the sponsor of a material whenever that operator accepts money, service or other valuable consideration” to air that material."
Comcast's fallback position was that even if the rule did apply, the VNR did not violate it because Comcast didn't pay anything to air it.
The FCC's Enforcement Bureau pointed to a caveat in that rule that says that it still has to identify program material for which it was not compensated unless the material is an "identification in a broadcast of any person, product, service, trademark or brand name beyond an identification which is reasonably related to the use of such service or property on the broadcast."
Pointing out that the "Nelsons Sleep Rescue" VNR was the focus of the segment, the FCC concluded that that showcase was beyond reasonable use and thus required identification. The FCC suggested the caveat applied only to "fleeting" product references, though as in cases with other content -- indecency, profanity, host selling in kids’ shows -- even fleeting isn't always enough to avoid FCC sanction.
The proposed fine, the baseline for the violation, came in response to a complaint filed by Free Press.
“We are perplexed by this Bureau action,” said Sena Fitzmaurice, senior director, corporate communications, for Comcast. “The relevant statute does not cover cable programming, and even if it did, CN8’s programming was entirely consistent with the statute. The segments in question were chosen by journalists in the course of reporting, and Comcast received no consideration or benefit by using the material. We will reiterate these facts in our response to this Notice.
Free Press saw it differently. “We’re pleased to see the FCC is finally waking up to the issue of fake news,” said Freee Press Communications Director Craig Aaron. “But the fine levied against Comcast is just the tip of the tip of the iceberg. Video news releases dressed up as real news were uncovered at more than 100 stations. We hope the FCC will soon fine those stations and issue clear guidelines to end the epidemic of fake news once and for all.”