The Federal Communications Commission last week issued a missive insisting that broadcasters screening video news releases, as these reports are known, must clearly disclose "the nature, source and sponsorship" of the material. "Viewers are entitled to know who seeks to persuade them," it said.
"What the FCC is saying is if it appears that someone got paid for putting it together and it's run in its entirety, even if furnished free to the stations, then it should be identified," said Rosemary Harold, partner at Wiley Rein & Fielding, a firm that specializes in communications law.
Coming in the same week that the Senate slapped restrictions on government VNRs-and in a week when President Bush stated his opposition to VNRs run without disclosure of their origins-the FCC statement is a hammer blow the to the estimated $150 million VNR-production business.
VNRs are a favorite marketing ploy not only of the government-it is hard to ignore the irony that it is government misuse of VNRs that prompted the government to step up regulation of the tactic-but also of nonprofits and a host of major marketers.
And, while Public Relations Society of America President Judy Phair said disclosure of the source is already recommended practice, part of their appeal to marketers has been the fact that they often run unsourced during news broadcasts, especially local broadcasts, and therefore appear to be a credible report, not a video made by an organization with a message or agenda it wants to convey.
Their appeal to both broadcasters and marketers will likely be reduced by this ruling. "It's a real deterrent if this means there's going to be a black box on VNRs," said Richard Edelman, president-CEO of Edelman Worldwide. His view was echoed by Harris Diamond, CEO of Interpublic Group of Cos.' Weber Shandwick. "It will clearly have an impact on VNRs going forward, The impact will be more than just government; it will spread and impact corporate and not-for-profits too. Everybody uses VNRs to a certain extent."
Some poorly funded, smaller local broadcasters run VNRs regularly to fill their broadcasts, and may continue to use partial clips from VNRs, as these will likely not have to be sourced. But experts expected that government agencies would shy away from making VNRs in the current climate.
Armstrong Williams' failure to admit he was a paid shill of the government prompted widespread media outrage and drew attention to the whole issue of covert propaganda. In addition, Democrats in the House and Senate, and the General Accounting Office, have questioned the government's use of VNRs to promote Medicare drug benefits and the use of such tools by the White House anti-drug agency.
In such an environment, news directors were already clamping down on the use of VNRs. The Radio Television News Directors Association this week is due to formally unveil guidelines on VNR use at its annual convention in Las Vegas, that already would require better identification.
"Television and radio stations should strive to protect the editorial integrity of the video and audio they air. This integrity might, at times, come into question when stations air video and audio provided to newsrooms by companies, organizations or governmental agencies with political or financial interests in publicizing the material," state the new guidelines.
not much change
VNR producers said they expect stations to ask for more information on who sponsors the VNRs, but otherwise do not anticipate much will change.
Larry Moskowitz, president, CEO and chairman of Medialink, the biggest producer of VNRs, interpreted the rules as meaning that their origins need only be disclosed if the broadcaster is being paid to run them-which rarely happens. "What we see pretty clearly is that as long as VNRs are delivered from non-government agencies without payment, no disclosure is required. Government material and controversial matters must be disclosed."
He called the FCC action "nothing new" and said stations still need to air movie trailers in entertainment segments and car clips in pieces about new cars. "I don't know what stations can do without the material. We don't see any impact. There will certainly be some dust, and yes, people will be questioning, but at the end of the day the industry will evolve."
Douglas S. Simon, CEO of D S Simon productions, another VNR producer, said the FCC move could make stations "more gun-shy" but is more likely to make the stations want more information on the sponsorship of any VNRs, which his company has been providing anyway. "It's a dumb policy to hide the sponsor because it puts you at risk and how can you build trust with a source if you are not telling him who you are working for."