New FCC rules spare pubcasters from foreign sponsorship disclosures

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Mike Janssen/Current

Public broadcasters are welcoming the FCC’s decision to rein in new rules governing foreign sponsorship of radio and TV broadcasts, which system leaders feared could be too burdensome for producers and stations.

In a Report and Order released April 22, the FCC specified that its requirements for identifying program sponsorship by foreign governments will apply only to broadcasters that lease airtime to governmental entities. That largely excludes public broadcasters.

The commission had suggested broader regulations in a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in October. That prompted responses from NPR, PBS and America’s Public Television Stations, which argued in comments to the FCC that the rules could have adverse effects on public media

PBS and APTS cited “unintended consequences by which, for example, a nature program that includes B-roll footage from a foreign tourism board is mislabeled as propaganda that is ‘paid for or furnished by’ a foreign government.” The organizations pointed to situations in which documentary producers would be required to disclose foreign sponsorship for using even the briefest clips of footage provided by governments and agencies.

In its comments, NPR called the proposed rules “too broad” and said that they could “interfere with core First Amendment activities.”

NPR advised the FCC to zero in on “the narrow circumstances … in which a foreign governmental entity or its agent leases station airtime and determines the station programming.” Members of Congress and FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks had previously raised concerns about Radio Sputnik, a Russian propaganda operation, leasing airtime on U.S. radio stations.

The FCC agreed with NPR’s argument. “Based on the record before us, we agree with NPR and find that focusing on the airing of programming on U.S. broadcast stations pursuant to leasing agreements will address the primary present concern with foreign governmental actors gaining access to American airwaves without disclosing the programming’s origin to the public,” the commission said in the Report and Order.

“We find that limiting the application of our disclosure requirement to the context of leasing agreements obviates a number of issues and suggestions put forth by commenters concerned that the Commission would inadvertently sweep in additional programming that does not carry the same concerns with foreign influence as the unidentified lease of programming time,” the commission added.

APTS and PBS said in a statement that they were “pleased that the FCC recognized all the points raised in our filings regarding the importance of robust international collaborations to produce and deliver the highest quality content to the American public.”

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