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VNR Labeling Bill Amended

The Senate Commerce Committee has unanimously passed a bill that would require the government to clearly identify any packaged video news releases it issues, but not require that the ID air throughout the entirety of the piece.

A packaged VNR is a video press release packaged to resemble a news story, with similar production techniques or an actor as anchor.

The bill essentially reinstates an amendment added to a budget bill by Senator Robert Byrd (D-W.V.) earlier in the year requiring disclosure. That amendment expired Sept. 30.

The original bill had been tougher. Proposed by Senators Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.), it would have mandated that the government put a label, "Produced By the U.S. Government" (the FCC could tweak the language and format as it saw fit) on all packaged video news releases, and that the label air during the entirety of the VNR.

The bill as amended instead gives the FCC more leeway to determine how the ID is made, requiring that:

"Prepackaged news stories produced by the government include a clear notification to the audience that the United States Government prepared or funded the segment."

"Defin[ing] “prepackaged news story” as a complete, ready-to-use audio or video news segment designed to be indistinguishable from those produced by an independent news organization. 
"Instructs the FCC to determine the circumstances under which the disclaimer may be removed or modified."

"Clarifies that the bill’s provisions do not apply to the government’s authorized, legal intelligence activities."

The bill may also help to in the dispute between the Justice Department and the General Accounting Office over what constitutes an illegal packaged VNR.

The packaged VNR issue has been roiling for months, stemming from a GAO finding that some administration VNR's, particularly for health care and education initiatives, were covert propaganda, which is not allowed to be funded by Congress. Justice issued its own opinion that, if the information was factual, it was not covert propaganda even if it was not labeled as coming from the government.
Douglas Simon, president and CEO of PR video company D S Simon Productions, was pleased that the on-screen, all-the-time provision had been dropped. Simon, who testified at a VNR hearing May 12, said that  "Stations will have to make informed judgments. Let's not limit the rights of stations. Let's make sure they know it is coming from the government. I encourage stations to disclose such VNR's if they use them.

John Eggerton
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.