TV Charity Drives Scrutinized


Ho ho hold on just a minute.

Activist group Free Press is complaining to the FCC over ad-sponsored charity drives at local TV stations, following a story in the Washington Post about several stations that team with advertisers on the campaigns.

The practice of soliciting advertisers to sponsor toy or food drives or health screenings, which can include the advertiser buying time on the station as well, is not uncommon.

They have been pitched as providing exposure for the advertiser, money for the station, and cash or services for the needy. But some stations steer clear, arguing that it is too cozy a relationship with the advertiser.

There is also the issue of identifying the advertiser as a paid sponsor, particularly when news departments cover the campaigns as stories and interview the advertiser or include its logo prominently.

FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein wants the FCC to look into the campaigns as part of a larger investigation into payola.

“I am very concerned by the issues raised,"said Adelstein in a statement in the Post article.

"A broadcaster’s failure to fully disclose to the public that it receives financial benefits from the employer of an on-air “expert” guest is not just corrupt journalism, it’s potentially illegal.
"To give certain companies air-time simply because they have made undisclosed payments to the broadcaster is a serious breach of the public’s trust.  The FCC needs to investigate all potential violations of our payola laws. We need to get to the bottom of this.”

Adelstein has staked out payola and deceptive practices as a key issue in his second term as commissioner, but he has not passed judgment publicly on the problematic areas, saying instead that the FCC needs first to find out whether or not they violate any FCC rules.

The ongoing payola investigation was prompted by the rise in product placement, the controversy over government-packaged video news releases that don't identify themselves, and the revelation of widespread payola in the music industry, at least according to a couple companies that settled with the government over the issue.

Free Press helped prompt an investigation into the Department of Education's pay-for-play contract with conservative commentator Armstrong Williams that found the relationship improper and prompted promises by DOE to change its policies.

There have also been occasional stories of station ad departments trying to sell news stories or failing to sufficiently identify paid segments in magazine-type shows.