Skip to main content

Adelstein: Adamant About Ads

Democratic FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein has made cracking down on deceptive advertising practices a key issue in his second term at the commission.

Since May 2005, when he made a speech accusing the media of “marinating children's brains in advertising,” he has been committed to wiping out unlawful practices. As more than 100 TV stations and some cable operators face potential fines for unidentified video news releases (VNRs), Adelstein says disclosure remains the answer.

Adelstein fielded questions from B&C's John Eggerton recently on a range of topics. He says he's worried that mishandling of the DTV transition may result in a “tsunami of complaints,” and he addresses concerns about localism and minority ownership.

A third complaint was just filed over an unidentified video news release. Why should broadcasters have to identify the sources of nonpolitical VNRs they don't pay for?

Somebody did in fact pay for it, and they didn't pay the production bills out of the goodness of their hearts.

Under the law, any valuable consideration up or down the chain of production requires disclosure. Even nonpolitical VNRs can be deceptive if they lead consumers to believe a segment to be honestly researched when, in fact, it was produced by a third party with a commercial or governmental self-interest.

It is unfortunate if some broadcasters and cable operators are unwilling to disclose when segments are produced by an outside party, even though disclosure is standard ethics practice according to the Radio-Television News Directors Association. What are they trying to hide? Disclosure is the best policy.

Does the FCC need to change its rules about product placement, and what are they, by the way?

Yes, we must review, and possibly update, our rules to reflect the realities of the marketplace. We may need to flesh out our rules. We need to have clear rules in place on the nature and duration of the on-air announcement, and the announcement needs to provide a meaningful disclosure, such as identifying the sponsor's name in a manner that the average American will recognize.

Sen. Herb Kohl introduced a bill to establish a task force, similar to one you suggested, to coordinate the DTV transition education campaign.

I applaud Sen. Kohl for taking leadership and looking out for the millions of American seniors who are affected by the DTV transition.

We only have one chance to do this right, and it is a mistake not to establish direct, coordinated federal leadership of this huge education effort.

The Government Accountability Office has bemoaned that nobody is in charge. The private sector has set up a coordinating body. Why shouldn't the federal government do the same for the many federal agencies involved? A task force could help coordinate and vet effective messages. It could help prevent a tsunami of complaints from dumping down upon Congress, the FCC, NTIA, broadcasters and cable operators.

What should the FCC be doing that it isn't to spur minority ownership?

The FCC should be doing everything in its power to spur minority ownership, which is at tragically low levels. Recently, I called for an independent, bipartisan task force on minority ownership. [That] would evaluate the many proposals that have been collecting dust at the FCC, some as far back as 1992. It would also explore new ideas, including leasing, that would ensure a diverse group of voices reach American viewers.

The commission should focus on a truly comprehensive set of regulatory changes that would specifically—not tangentially—empower a diverse ownership of broadcast outlets.

What do you make of this GAO study sayingthe FCC is giving some lobbyists an advantage?

It is of great concern to me. The FCC must have an open and transparent process. The stakes are too high to let some parties have access to better information than others. The sad reality is that the biggest companies with the fattest lobbying budgets tend to get the best information.

A full version of this interview is available on