FCC: Free, Noncontroversial VNRs Can Still Trigger Fines

The Federal Communications Commission's latest proposed fines for unidentified video-news releases clarified that just because a station doesn't pay for a nonpolitical or issues-oriented VNR doesn't mean that it can't get fined for airing it without an on-screen identification.

That came in a decision in which the FCC's enforcement bureau issued four more proposed fines, totaling $16,000, against Comcast for unidentified VNRs on noncontroversial issues that nobody paid it to run.

The newest four VNRs to be cited were for the Wheaties Fit to Win Challenge, Allstate Insurance, Trend Microsoftware and Bisquick's 75th anniversary, all airing in fall 2006 on Comcast's CN8, The Comcast Network, a regional cable news channel in 12 states and the District of Columbia.

Comcast argued that the sponsorship-identification rules don't apply to cable, but that even if they did, no sponsorship identification is required unless they were paid or otherwise compensated to run the VNRs or unless they dealt with political or other important issues.

The FCC disagreed, saying that the rules do apply to "cable origination" programming and to free, nonpolitical VNRs with brand identifications "beyond an identification reasonably related to the use of such service or property on the cablecast."

The commission concluded that the four VNRs all met that beyond reasonable brand-identification caveat. But even if they hadn't, they would have needed to be identified on-screen anyway, the FCC suggested, saying that in these cases "the VNR itself was the ‘valuable consideration’ provided to CN8."

Last week the commission proposed a $4,000 fine for the use of footage from a sleep-aid VNR on a Comcast news channel. It was the commission's first-ever fine for violating the sponsorship-identification rules, but its argument did not explicitly include asserting that the VNRs themselves represented some kind of payment to the station.

Comcast, while arguing against the fines, also told the FCC that all future VNRs from a third party would be identified on-screen.

Complaints had been lodged by the Center for Media and Democracy, Free Press and others against more than 100 VNRs, mostly on TV stations, but the FCC's first of what could be numerous proposed fines -- especially if VNRs themselves are the valuable consideration that triggers on-screen IDs -- was against a big cable company.

For its part, Comcast stands behind the journalism at CN8 and suggests it expects to appeal the decision and win. "CN8 is proud of its programming, which has been recognized with more than 370 regional Emmy Award nominations and provides 90 hours a week of live, original programming. 

"The FCC's preliminary findings are legally unfounded and factually distorted as CN8 received no payment or benefit by using the material, which came from a legitimate broadcast media subscription service. We expect that our judgments will ultimately be vindicated."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.