FCC IDEA TO CURB AD TIME FALLS FLAT

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WASHINGTON-The Federal Communications Commission's idea to limit the amount of commercial time for broadcasters is proving about as popular as condoms at a convent.

Only two of the 32 comments received by the FCC in response to its Oct. 7 trial balloon endorsed the notion of curbing commercial time, and even those offered no specifics. The Center for the Study of Commercialism, which argues for less advertising in any context, and the U.S. Catholic Conference endorsed the idea, while the networks, and advertiser and broadcaster groups adamantly opposed it.

Where the FCC proceeds next remains to be seen, though the one-sidedness of the comments would suggest the idea of limiting commercial time, advanced last fall by Commissioner James Quello, is a non-starter.

But Paul Gordon, an FCC attorney, said drawing such an inference would not necessarily be valid.

"The whole point is to see what people think, and the overwhelming nature of the comments would seem to say that we should do something else," he said. "But you cannot predict the outcome of something like this based on the number of comments or what they say."

Mr. Gordon also declined to say when the FCC, now under the new leadership of Chairman Reed Hundt, might act next on the idea.

The FCC initiated its inquiry in the wake of the 1990 cable act and subsequent court and agency rulings that required local cable systems to carry local broadcast signals of home shopping services. But Mr. Quello questioned whether broadcasters airing only or predominantly home shopping services were in compliance with the public interest criterion used by the FCC to grant and approve station licenses.

Michael Jacobson, director of the Center for the Study of Commercialism, used the FCC's trial balloon to resurrect previous arguments-in favor of continuous identification for infomercials and disclosure of all product placement-and urged the FCC to limit the number of ads per hour of broadcast TV.

"We didn't say, `There should only be 3.8 minutes per hour' .|.|. but urged the FCC to look further at this issue," Mr. Jacobson said.

Likewise, the Catholic Conference offered no specific advice, save the warning that "reasonable regulation of the level of advertising .|.|. helps ensure that a broadcast licensee properly uses its license for the public good rather than the private benefit of the broadcaster."

But massed against them, like Sitting Bull looking down on an outmanned George Custer, were the National Association of Broadcasters, Association of National Advertisers, Capital Cities/ABC, National Infomercial Marketing Association, NBC, CBS and a host of others.

"No showing has been made why the commission's current policies are not appropriate for today's broadcast environment or why the commission should now revert to a discredited command-and-control regulatory philosophy," NIMA said.

Cap Cities/ABC said that for the FCC to reimpose limits, much like those in place before deregulation in 1984, "would raise substantial First Amendment concerns."

"TV network companies and local broadcasters must finance their programming virtually exclusively from the revenue generated by advertising," the company said. "Any restrictions on commercial matter that resulted in decreased revenue could ultimately damage the quality and diversity of programs broadcasters offer."

NBC argued that marketplace proliferation makes unnecessary any ceiling on commercial time.

"In 1994 and beyond, consumers will have so many video programming options that it is ludicrous to assert that anyone will be compelled to watch a program [or even a commercial] that he or she does not find appealing, on a broadcast channel or elsewhere," the network said.

The ANA argued that a commercials limit would "restrict the ability of advertisers, program producers and broadcasters to respond to the marketplace and the public they serve."

As for the idea's potential legal consequences, the NAB said the FCC "cannot, consistently with the First Amendment, limit the amount or type of commercial programming that can be seen on a TV station merely because the programming proposes a commercial transaction."M

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