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Chicago station's experiment with home shopping violated FCC rule

Originally published in Current, Nov. 8, 1995

The Federal Communications Commission gave a light slap on the wrist of public TV station WTTW, Chicago, for airing about 40 hours of home shopping programs two years ago, but declined to penalize the station.

In a letter to the station Oct. 23, the commission admonished the station for altering its schedule to air fundraising programs that benefited two local museums, the zoo and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but found no violation of its rules against commercialism on public broadcasting.

The Chicago Holiday Gift Exchange, an experimental home shopping series that aired Oct. 16-23, 1993, sold merchandise from WTTW as well as the gift shops of the four big cultural nonprofits. WTTW is one of the most aggressive public TV stations in seeking to expand private-sector revenues.

The commission explained that--though it bans advertisements on noncommercial educational stations--it does not regard promotional announcements for nonprofits as ads since the merchandise isn't offered ''for profit.''

Where the station went wrong was in suspending or substantially altering its regular programming to raise funds for other nonprofits. Stations must obtain a waiver to do that, and WTTW didn't apply for one.

The commission rejected WTTW arguments that the home shopping series was scheduled and therefore ''regular'' programming and that the sales had mostly benefited WTTW, not the other nonprofits.

Airing the home shopping series ''was not consistent with our noncommercial fundraising policy,'' the FCC concluded in its letter, and it cautioned WTTW ''to use care'' in complying with commission rules in the future. But the commission said it recognized that the station was trying ''creative fundraising'' primarily for its own benefit and that the shopping program included educational material about the Chicago nonprofits and their cultural exhibits and events.

The ruling responded to a petition filed in July 1994 by a Chicago watchdog group, the Coalition for Democracy in Public Television. The commission declined to issue a public notice that program-length commercial programs violate its rules. ''We need not issue such a public notice or even reach this issue to resolve the coalition's complaint against station WTTW,'' the commission said in its letter.

Tanya Neimark, v.p. for corporate communications at WTTW, said the station regarded the ruling as fair. The home shopping series was an experiment, she said. ''We have no further plans in this area. We did not consider it financially successful.''

Andrew Schwartzman, head of the Media Access Project, a Washington-based public interest law firm that assisted the coalition, was pleased that the commission had drawn a line between pubcasters offering coffee mugs for their own support and selling them for others. ''We look forward on the occasion of this admonishment to starting off on a clean slate with WTTW'' and letting bygones be bygones, he said.

The important thing to note, he said, was that ''we cannot save noncommercial broadcasting by commercializing it.''

Web page posted Nov. 8, 1995
Current: the newspaper about public TV and radio
in the United States
Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.
Copyright 1995


Activists petition FCC against home shopping, 1994.