PUBLIC TV WORRIES ABOUT FCC DECISION ON SPONSORS: SOME UNDERWRITING MESSAGES ARE LABELED ILLEGAL ADS

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A Federal Communications Commission decision that some of public TV's "underwriting messages" are illegal commercials is worrying public TV stations, raising fears it could impair the ability to get future corporate underwriting commitments.

Public Broadcasting Service officials are to meet with the FCC this week, while Chicago's WTTW-TV said it will join with PBS to formally contest the FCC action.

FCC fined the Chicago station $5,000 for airing announcements from Zenith Electronics Corp., Sun America and Amoco Oil Co. The commission said these announcements contained "calls to action" going beyond the rules, and also concluded that several of the station's messages for Prudential Securities -- broadcast nationally on PBS' "Wall Street Week" -- were illegal ads (AA, Dec. 8).

NO FINE FOR 'WALL ST. WK.'

The commission didn't fine WTTW for the "Wall Street Week" announcement, noting that the program came from PBS, which gets the show from Maryland Public Television.

FCC declined to say whether complaints about the messages came from the public or from another broadcaster.

WTTW last week conceded that the Zenith announcement, which touted Zenith products, shouldn't have appeared. But it said the other announcements cited, including the one from Prudential, are little different from standard fare on all public TV outlets.

The Prudential announcement said: "With more than 5,600 financial advisers nationwide, Prudential Securities can help you invest your money."

The Sun America message cited by the FCC, and produced by Asher/Gould, Los Angeles, has run on more than 20 PBS stations.

FCC said the message was illegal because it goes beyond the company theme line of "Sun America, because it's not just your retirement, it's your future," to also say "many Americans haven't saved enough to enjoy [retirement]. That's why there's Sun America."

"This type of language is found in many underwriting messages," said Reese Marcusson, senior VP-corporate communications for WTTW, adding that the FCC decision is a change in the traditional interpretation and "could have an enormous impact on the public television system."

'SOMEWHAT BEWILDERED'

Peter Downey, PBS senior VP-program business affairs, described the network as "somewhat bewildered."

"We don't understand what the thought process was that led the commission to the ruling that it has issued," he said. "The commission's interpretation of its own rules has made us confused."

Both Sun America and Prudential expressed surprise at the ruling, but said any need to change messages wouldn't change their desires to underwrite public TV

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