- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Days after it issued the first fine to a cable provider for using a so-called video news release without attribution, the Federal Communications Commission last week proposed four additional fines against the company, Philadelphia-based Comcast Corp.

Video news releases (VNRs) are television packages resembling newscasts — usually produced by large corporations, organizations or even the government — that are sent out to TV stations with the hope that reporters will incorporate all or some of the footage into a news segment.

Several groups, including the Center for Media and Democracy and Free Press, have long been critical of what they say is a widespread practice airing VNRs without disclosing the source of the footage.

Broadcasters argued that the decision to air all or part of a VNR is an editorial one, therefore attribution isn’t necessary. Additionally, cable providers maintain that FCC sponsorship rules apply only to broadcast services.

On Sept. 21, the FCC proposed its first fine for $4,000 against Comcast, which aired clips from a VNR that was made to promote a product called “Nelson’s Rescue Sleep” in a segment about sleep aids on its regional cable network, CN8. The notice concluded that Comcast violated the commission’s sponsorship identification rules.

On Thursday, the commission dealt Comcast another blow, proposing four additional $4,000 fines for similar VNR inclusions. All of the incidents stem from complaints filed with the agency by the Center for Media and Democracy.

The findings — levies by the FCC’s enforcement bureau, not the full commission — are significant because the agency said its rules require video providers to identify sponsors even if the video was provided for free.

“The sponsorship ID rules typically come into play when money, services or other valuable consideration is given in exchange for airing the particular material,” said Brendan Holland, an associate at Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, on the firm’s Broadcast Law blog. “Normally, the phrase ‘services or other valuable consideration’ does not typically include services or property furnished without charge or at a nominal fee, such as the VNR.”

Comcast disputes the commission’s interpretation of the rules.

“The FCC’s preliminary findings are legally unfounded and factually distorted as CN8 received no payment or benefit by using the material, which came from a legitimate broadcast media subscription service,” spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice said. “We expect that our judgments will ultimately be vindicated.”

The Center for Media and Democracy, which regularly tracks the use of VNRs in the media, endorsed the reasoning.

“Given how expensive it is to produce, film, edit and script a real television news report, CMD estimates that TV newsrooms will save thousands of dollars for each minute that they air VNR footage instead of real news,” said Diane Farsetta, senior researcher for the group.

Such savings constitute a contribution, she said.

Merit or no merit, the proposed Comcast fines will have significant ramifications because dozens of similar complaints are pending before the commission.

“Given that the decision seems to cross into the territory of a cable operator’s or broadcaster’s editorial and journalistic discretion protected by the First Amendment, one can imagine that the cable operator (and any broadcasters fined in the future) will attack vigorously the FCC’s interpretation,” Mr. Holland said.

Channel Surfing runs on Wednesdays. E-mail krowland@washingtontimes.com.

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