Be afraid, Karen Ryan! Be very afraid!
On Friday, the Federal Communications Commission announced it was fining Comcast for airing, on one if its regional affiliates (CN8) about a year ago, “portions of a video news release…without also airing required sponsorship identification announcements.” That is, for “reporting” fake news. (See here and here for some of CJR’s recent reporting on How Video News Releases —a.k.a., VNRs—Are Hurting America.)
And for its sins, Comcast must cough up… $4,000.
Last November, the Center for Media and Democracy and Free Press filed a joint complaint against Comcast with the FCC, citing a September 21, 2006 “Art Fennel Reports” consumer news segment on CN8 (which serves nine million Comcast viewers in twelve states “from Maine to Virginia”). The segment was about non-prescription sleep aids but viewers learned only of one such aid — Nelson’s Sleep Rescue — and they learned about it, in part, from bits of an incredibly cheesy and stilted video news release produced for Nelson’s Sleep Rescue by a company called D.S. Simon Productions.
Comcast reacted to the fine—“the first-ever sanction for airing a VNR,” as the Center for Media and Democracy notes—by arguing that the FCC statute in question does not apply to cable. Part two of Comcast’s argument is that it wasn’t paid to air the snatches of VNR. (In other words, we aren’t greedy or intentionally misleading, just too lazy to report and produce our own “consumer news” segment. VNRs are handy that way, in that they provide news producers with readymade “reporting,” designed to look and feel like television news, typically ending with someone—a journalist, one might presume—“signing off.” The one in question here ends with, “I’m Susan Kellner.”) According to a Center for Media and Democracy study, this isn’t an isolated event for CN8— the station has aired without disclosure bits of other VNRs on four occasions.
There is, as noted by the Center for Media and Democracy, some language of concern in Friday’s FCC ruling. The FCC appears to concur with Comcast that stations don’t need to disclose to viewers where their footage comes from if they aren’t paid to air it, but that they do need to disclose—payment or no—“when there is too much focus on a product or brand name in the programming,” as was apparently the case with Nelson’s Sleep Rescue.
Says the Center for Media and Democracy: “The VNR that CN8 aired and Comcast was fined for was remarkable—but not unique—in its extent of product promotion. The sleep aid Nelson’s Rescue Sleep was shown and mentioned by name repeatedly. Hopefully, in levying this fine, the FCC does not mean to imply that there is no need to disclose VNRs that show a product label only two or three times.”
On the bright side, FCC Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein “applauded” the ruling in a press release and said that he “looks forward to quick action on the many other pending video news release complaints.”
Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.
Consider yourself warned, Comcast, ye of eleven-figure annual revenues: there may be more than one four-figure fine in your future.