- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Government regulators want the public to help them smoke out stealth advertising in television and radio programs.

The Federal Communications Commission issued a fact sheet last week to remind people that broadcasters are required to disclose to their viewers and listeners when a company has paid to have products and services promoted on the air.

The FCC has been under pressure to crack down on so-called payola since April, when press reports revealed that some of the consumer specialists who tout products on “Today,” “Good Morning America” and other TV news shows routinely receive undisclosed payments from manufacturers.

The fact sheet is a first step toward raising awareness of payola, according to FCC Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein, the agency’s most vocal critic of hidden ads and one of two Democrats on the five-member panel.

“We are enlisting everyone who watches and listens to the media in the effort to catch violations of our payola rules. Like a Neighborhood Watch program, putting viewers on alert will help us enforce the law and deter future abuses,” he said.

The agency’s fact sheet, which spells out the rules against payola and lists the steps people can take to complain about potential violations, can be viewed at www.fcc.gov/cgb/consumerfacts/PayolaRules.html.

The FCC has not sanctioned a broadcaster for payola violations since October 2000, when it fined stations in Texas and Michigan $4,000 each for not disclosing payments they received from A&M; Records to play Bryan Adams songs.

The new payola brouhaha has intensified a debate over the integrity of the press.

Last year, at least 40 TV stations aired video news releases (VNRs) from the Department of Health and Human Services that touted the government’s new Medicare drug benefit. To most viewers, the reports probably looked like a legitimate news stories, but the Government Accountability Office later determined they were essentially unlabeled propaganda.

In January, the FCC announced it would investigate whether commentator Armstrong Williams broke the law by failing to disclose a $240,000 payment from the Education Department to promote the No Child Left Behind Act.

An FCC spokesman said that probe is still under way.

Product placement and video news releases have flourished because most broadcasters are owned by big companies that focus on the bottom line, said Timothy Karr, campaign director for Free Press, a nonprofit group that opposes media consolidation.

“They’ve stripped local newsrooms of the ability to produce local news, so it’s much easier for VNRs and these ‘consumer experts’ to get on the air,” Mr. Karr said.

Free Press filed a complaint last week asking the FCC to investigate payola in the press.

The appetite for tougher regulation of hidden ads isn’t great.

In February, the Federal Trade Commission rejected a request from Consumer Alert — a nonprofit group that monitors excessive commercialization in the media — to require that a superimposed message like “advertisement” appear when product placement occurs during a newscast or other show. The FTC wrote that “the existing statutory and regulatory framework provides sufficient tools for challenging” hidden ads.

Call Chris Baker at 202/636-3139 or send e-mail to cbaker@washingtontimes.com.

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