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Washington Watch

Critics: Ad Bans Curry White House Favor

An activist group that claims the TV networks arbitrarily choose what ads to reject is now asking the FCC to investigate each network’s policy on advocacy advertising.

Networks claim the right to reject issue ads on controversial topics, but “the network’s decisions on which ads to run are inconsistent at best,” complains Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).

Sloan’s group raised the alarm after NBC reversed its decision to air an ad opposing President Bush’s plan to limit victims’ awards in medical-malpractice suits. The advertisement was sponsored by USAction, a consumer-advocacy organization, and was scheduled to run on NBC minutes before the president’s State of the Union address last week. NBC later reversed its decision to run the ad. The ad was previously rejected by ABC, CBS and Fox, according to USAction.

The ad features Dylan Malone, whose son Ian died from injuries sustained at birth. Malone warns that President Bush’s plan to limit medical-malpractice damages would deny restitution to millions of deserving victims.

Although the networks say they reject all controversial issue ads, CREW argues that only spots likely to get stations in hot water with the White House are turned down. CREW points out that the networks have run spots advocating White House-backed ideas, such as limits on asbestos lawsuits.

Nets Revolt Over Kids’ Web Rules

What’s the hottest TV issue in Washington? Judging by the protests from major TV networks, new FCC rules restricting the display of Web-site addresses during children’s programming rank right up with fights over cable carriage, media ownership or indecency.

What would seem to be an arcane issue—showing a Web address—has drawn howls from Fox, Turner, Time Warner, Discovery and Nickelodeon. Advertising-industry trade groups also oppose the rules.

The protests prompted the FCC to postpone the Feb. 1 effective date until Jan. 1, 2006, but some networks want the FCC to throw out the rules entirely and start over.

Approved by the FCC in September, the rules would limit programmers’ current practice of displaying commercial Web-site addresses in a crawl at the bottom of the screen. The aim is to make sure programmers don’t circumvent hourly limits on ad time during kids shows by herding children to Web sites.

Programmers and advertisers complain that the FCC definition of a “commercial” Web site is so broad that nearly all Web addresses would be banned. The FCC’s new rules “would place premature, speculative and unreasonable barriers on the interaction between TV and the Internet,” says Dan Jaffee, executive vice president of the Association of National Advertisers.

Stop Us Before We Sell Again

Apparently unable to police its members, the Electronic Retailing Association (ERA) says broadcasters must pitch in to keep bogus infomercials off the air.

At an ERA seminar in New York this week, the group is giving cable and broadcast executives pointers on how to spot false and misleading long-form commercials.

“When we determine that a direct-response advertisement is unsubstantiated, we need the commitment of cable stations and networks that they will refrain from airing that program,” the group said in an announcement for the event.

Federal Trade Commission representatives will also be on hand to talk about the importance of self-regulation. The FTC has been cracking down on false and misleading diet and health claims on TV and elsewhere and has given the media a set of pointers on what to watch out for.