Sep. 28, 2007 · An unprecedented fine on a cable company for airing a “fake” news story advertising a non-prescription sleep aid violates the law and should be reversed, Comcast Corp. argued this week.
The Federal Communications Commission issued the fine after receiving a complaint that the cable company’s CN8 channel had aired what is referred to as a “video news release” — a short production essentially advertising a product but made to appear as a newscast. This is the first time the FCC has sanctioned a cable entity for airing a VNR.
The Center for Media and Democracy, a media watchdog group, complained to the FCC that the VNR was aired without sponsorship identification, in violation of FCC rules. The FCC agreed and fined the cable company $4,000 for failing to identify the VNR’s sponsor — an FCC first.
The FCC has historically issued fines and sanctions on broadcast entities but has typically left the cable community alone. Comcast argued that the law does not allow the FCC to regulate cable programming, and that even if it did, Comcast was not in violation of the statute because it did not receive any compensation or “value” for airing the VNR, spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice said.
The FCC rule at issue requires a cable operator to announce sponsorship for any cablecast in which “money, service, or other valuable consideration is either directly or indirectly paid or promised to . . . the cable television system operator.”
“This is the first time I have had to deal with this issue,” Fitzmaurice said, but added that the FCC has inquired about a handful of additional VNR issues in the past year.
These inquiries are likely due to the complaint filed by the Center for Media and Democracy, which reviewed 140 VNRs and asked the FCC to investigate both cable and broadcast entities that failed to show clear sponsorship information, according to Diane Farsetta, a senior researcher at the center.
“What’s happening here,” Farsetta said, “is for the first time, the FCC is saying how it feels sponsorship identifications apply to VNRs on cable. It seems there is broad support within the FCC for the fine; it seems unlikely to be overturned,” she said.
The ad in question was for a product called “Nelson’s Rescue Sleep” that was shown and mentioned by name, but was not accompanied by any mention of the manufacturer. Fitzmaurice said Comcast will argue on appeal that neither CN8 nor Comcast received any “exchange of value” from the drug’s manufacturer for airing the release.
Farsetta said the center is interested to see whether additional fines will be issued due to their investigation and complaint. “For us, the question is whether this is the first fine of others — we documented 140 and gave all the evidence to the FCC. It is important to the public interest for the FCC to be more involved with VNRs and say they all need to be disclosed,” she said.
(In re Comcast Corp.) — Corinna Zarek