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FCC warns networks against concealing government sponsorship

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  1. Content Restrictions

    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Broadcasting         Jan 5, 2001    

FCC warns networks against concealing government sponsorship

  • Following a year-long investigation, the federal agency found networks did not run afoul of regulations by airing programs with anti-drug themes.

The Federal Communications Commission ended its investigation into several networks’ dealings with the Office of National Drug Control Policy with a warning to the broadcasters that they must identify program sponsorship. The FCC, however, stopped short of penalizing the networks.

The FCC spent almost a year investigating whether ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and the WB network had received money from ONDCP in exchange for airing television shows that contained anti-drug themes without identifying it as a sponsor. Shows included some popular prime-time programs such as “The Drew Carey Show,” “Chicago Hope,” “ER,” “Beverly Hills 90210” and “7th Heaven.”

In a Dec. 22 press release, David Solomon, chief of the FCC enforcement bureau, said the agency could not determine if a quid pro quo arrangement existed and it failed to “find that the networks violated our sponsorship identification rule.” Therefore, the FCC said it would not take any further enforcement action. However, the agency instructed the networks to disclose ONDCP sponsorship in any future repeat broadcasts of shows for which the networks received compensation. The agency said viewers are entitled to know who pays for broadcasts and called on the networks to clearly identify the sponsors.

During congressional hearings, network officials said they showed completed scripts to ONDCP, but never altered the scripts to receive higher compensation.

Spurred by a story from Salon.com in January 2000, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws filed a complaint with the FCC about the alleged practice. NORML contended that the public has a right to know if governmental organizations influence television content.

The relationship between ONDCP and the networks began with congressional approval in 1997 of a $1 billion anti-drug advertising campaign. Networks that received federal advertising money had to match it dollar-for-dollar with their own anti-drug public service announcements. As the economy picked up and advertisers paid top dollars for air time, networks accepted fewer federal anti-drug dollars. As a result, the ONDCP permitted networks to swap public service announcement time for programming that included anti-drug themes.

EH

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