FCC to WTTW: too much of that funky stuff
Chicago station says it's confused by underwriting fine
Originally published in Current, Dec. 15, 1997
WTTW and PBS say they're baffled by the FCC's proposal to fine the Chicago station $5,000 for airing four underwriting spots, including one that aired nationally on Wall Street Week.
The commission sent a "notice of apparent liability" to WTTW [text of notice] earlier this month, saying that spots aired in November 1996 for Zenith, Amoco, Prudential Securities and Sun America insurance violate FCC rules against advertisements for for-profit companies.
Under the rules, public broadcasters can air credits for corporate underwriting but only for the purpose of identifying backers. The credits are not supposed to promote their businesses. Specifically off-limits are comparative and qualitative descriptions, price information, calls to action and inducements to buy.
"On its face, this decision seems to signal a change in the commission's interpretation of underwriting rules," said Reese Marcusson, WTTW's senior v.p. of corporate planning and communications.
WTTW and PBS were seeking a meeting this week with FCC staffers to gain a clearer understanding of their thinking, said Peter Downey, PBS senior v.p. WTTW will reply to the notice in January and then can appeal the staff's next decision.
"In the Sun America and Prudential spots, words and phrases that were previously permissible are now deemed overly promotional in the FCC's eyes," Marcusson told Current. A summary of the issues:
- Sun America: The FCC found an illegal "call to action" in the Sun America copy: "many Americans haven't saved enough to enjoy [retirement]. That's why there's Sun America. ... Sun America, because it's not just your retirement, it's your future."
WTTW replied that the first remark is merely factual and the second is a well-established slogan, which would be permissible. The spot has aired on numerous other stations, according to WTTW.
- Prudential: The commission also saw a promotional effect and "call to action" in a voiceover that aired on PBS's Wall Street Week until June: "[w]ith more than 5,600 financial advisers nationwide, Prudential Securities can help you invest your money wisely."
"If this is a 'call to action,' lots of other credits could be," says Lawrence Miller, WTTW's Washington attorney. The ruling also has PBS confused, according to Downey, because it conflicts with the interpretation of "call to action" that pubcasters have followed for years.
- Amoco: Easily the oddest judgment call was the FCC's objection to a spot that "appears to promote a favorable quality" of Amoco Premium gasoline. In an animation, a woman puts gas in a car, it "revives," and doll figures in the car "are depicted bobbing their heads in apparent smiling approval," while voices sing, "can't get enough of that funky stuff," the FCC reported disapprovingly.
WTTW responded that the dolls are merely bobbing to the music. The spot is "cute but nonpromotional," the station said.
- Zenith: WTTW didn't contest the FCC's complaint about a credit that described TV sets with "images more realistic than ever before." The station acknowledged the spot should not have been aired.
The FCC finds few violations of underwriting rules and even fewer involving major stations. It investigates credits only in response to complaints, says Miller.
The commission originally cited credits from five additional underwriters in a July 14 letter, but WTTW's August reply apparently persuaded the regulators in those cases. Credits for three health firms turned out to be legal because the firms are nonprofits, and pubcasters can carry ads for nonprofits. The FCC also dropped objections to credits for the CIT Group and A.G. Edwards and Sons.
WTTW, which is one of the most aggressive private-sector fundraisers in public TV, said that it reviews 750 proposed credits a year and rejects about 60 percent of those for legal or esthetic reasons. The commission noted that it had fined the station in 1995 for an experiment in home-shopping sales that violated commission rules.
The FCC revisited another TV underwriting case in November, reducing from $3,500 to $3,000 the fine that WMTJ, which serves San Juan, Puerto Rico, has to pay for airing commercials within the 1993 U.S. Open tennis tournament coverage that it picked up from a commercial broadcaster. WMTJ conceded that this was a mistake, according to its Washington attorney, Todd Gray. This was the second reduction for the fine, which was originally set at $5,000.
To Current's home page
Current Briefing on commercialism in public broadcasting.
Earlier news: FCC fines WTTW for experiment in on-air home shopping sales, 1995.
Later development: Text of FCC order reducing fine, March 2000.
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